Penguin Project: Their time to shine

Penguin Project: Their time to shine

CHAMPAIGN — Samantha Hamilton has always wanted to act in a play. She's auditioned for school plays but was never cast.

Now she and 26 other area children with developmental disabilities will go on stage in October in Disney's "Aladdin Jr.," thanks to the Penguin Project.

New for the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company, the award-winning Penguin Project pairs students without disabilities as mentors to children with disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, visual and hearing impairments, and other neurological disorders.

The young mentors essentially become their understudies, learning all the lines, helping them through rehearsals and appearing on stage with their partners — who do all the acting, singing and dancing.

Samantha, an eighth-grader at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High and The Narrator for "Aladdin Jr.," called the Penguin Project "really cool."

"It's releasing my inner me," she said during a rehearsal Tuesday evening in downtown Champaign.

Samantha has a rare micro-chromosome deletion that has been diagnosed as autism, said her mother, Robin, also a Penguin Project fan.

"I love the fact that these children, no matter their abilities, have the chance to go out there and show what they can do and put on a performance like anyone else," she said.

The Penguin Project also has boosted her daughter's confidence and brought her new friends, she said.

The founder

That's exactly what Dr. Andy Morgan, a developmental pediatrician in Peoria, envisioned when he founded the Penguin Project in 2004.

The 66-year-old Baltimore native has long known what theater can do for participants. He's been active in theater since he was in high school.

And his wife, Kathy, who studied ballet when she was younger, and their three children have done theater as well.

"I realized how valuable it is in developing social and communication skills and self-esteem, and I noticed how my patients — children with special needs — often have difficulty with communication and self-confidence," Dr. Morgan said. "By watching my own children and their involvement in theater, I noticed these are skills that theater brings out. It made sense to put them together."

The Penguin Project was so successful in Peoria that after the first two years, parents urged Morgan to take it on the road. So he started the nonprofit Penguin Project Foundation.

Now his concept has been "replicated" in 17 communities, including Urbana-Champaign, in 11 states.

"It's really taken hold and is going nationwide, which we're really excited about," he said at the "Aladdin Jr." rehearsal at the SoDo Theatre on Walnut Street.

The foundation's mission is to create an infrastructure that supports the children and the relationships created through the Penguin Project, which takes on its own flavor in each community that adopts the program.

"The main goal is that the relationships are developed properly, among the artists, mentors, the staff and the families," Morgan said. "Everybody is critical to this process. We want to create a positive environment. It takes everybody working together."

Positive effects

Morgan said he could tell stories all night about how the Penguin Project has improved the lives of participants.

One, a young man who was headed for placement in a residential facility, became a lead in a Penguin play. As a result, he became more social and did not have to live in a facility.

"He became a superstar at home and in the program," said Kathy Morgan, who helps with the project.

Another young man who had been bullied at school and had no friends became more socially adjusted and made new friends after being in a play.

"Kids not being able to move are walking better," Kathy Morgan said. "Kids with autism who were not hugging and interacting with others began to hug and interact."

The young mentors — Dr. Morgan called them the backbones of the project — benefit, too. They gain a new appreciation for people with disabilities, and many go into fields such as occupational therapy and special education, the Morgans said.

The Penguin Project also helps the families of the artists — the children with disabilities.

"I didn't initially appreciate how isolated the parents were," Andy Morgan said. "Now they develop bonds and enjoy seeing their kids succeed.

"It's happening all over the place. It really is amazing how the children come out of their shells and become more engaged in school, raise their hands in class, go out to musicals together. The project created a social network for these children who were isolated, and for their families."

Andy Morgan named the program — one director has referred to it as "social change disguised as theater" — the Penguin Project for two reasons, said his wife: Penguins are his favorite bird, and they are birds with special needs because they can't fly.

"They have to negotiate through an unfriendly environment and do it together and with great joy," Andy Morgan said. "That's why it's called the Penguin Project and why the kids call themselves penguins."

Watchful eyes

Many of the parents of the artists sat in the back of the rehearsal space Tuesday evening, observing "Aladdin Jr." director Brian Hagy (he founded in 1994 The Prompting Theatre for adults with disabilities) and music director Debra Myers teach the kids how and when to say their lines.

Joe and Kelly Glass of Rantoul were keeping an eye on their 12-year-old son, Kaleb Curry, who is considered high-functioning on the autism spectrum. He's portraying The Prince Formerly Known as the Artist and the Guard.

Like many of the artists' parents, the Glasses first heard of the Penguin Project via CU Able, a Facebook group for parents of children with disabilities.

They thought the project would be good for Kaleb because he learned how to speak by re-enacting movies and TV shows.

They also wanted Kaleb, a seventh-grader, to enjoy opportunities he doesn't necessarily have at school and to meet new kids.

The Penguin Project, they said, is practically the first extracurricular activity their son looks forward to.

"He reminds us when it's time to go to the rehearsals," Kelly Glass said. "He's really enjoying his mentor and looks forward to seeing her. It brings him out of his comfort zone."

Brandy O'Connor of Tolono likewise believes the Penguin Project is good for her 8-year-old son, Mark Bolen, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Cast as The Magic Carpet in "Aladdin Jr.," Mark enjoys the rehearsals and the socializing, she said.

"It's amazing. I'm very impressed by how organized this is," O'Connor said at the rehearsal. "This is the first year they've done it in Champaign. Brian is awesome. It's a completely comfortable and positive experience all-around."

She also was impressed with Dr. Morgan, who spoke at the first Penguin Project meeting in Champaign, and with his and his wife's experience working with children with special needs.

Dr. Morgan shows up at rehearsals other times too, visiting each project site six or seven times over the four-month rehearsal process to address issues that arise — they're the same place to place, he said.

Said O'Connor: "Just being at the rehearsals and watching these kids, I can see they are so excited to be here. They all want to be here and do this."

The mentors

Same goes for the mentors.

Faizah Rauther, a 14-year-old freshman at University High School in Urbana, is mentoring Samantha Hamilton.

Faizah called the Penguin Project a rare opportunity.

"It's a lot of fun and it helps you learn a lot," she said. "I learned some things about patience and working with others. I never had a lot of friends with disabilities, and I've made a lot of friends here."

Mentor Lexi Butsch, a ninth-grader at Monticello High School, hadn't been involved in theater before she became involved in the Penguin mentor.

She had heard about it from her mother, a counselor who works with people with developmental disabilities.

Lexi, who was matched to Mark Bolen, said she's always loved helping people anywhere she can, including at nursing homes and on mission trips.

"Here, I do what they ask me to do, which isn't much," she said. "I move Mark as he dances with the other people. He's just one of us."

If you go

What: Champaign Urbana Theatre Company and The Penguin Project present Disney's "Aladdin Jr.," starring 27 children with disabilities who are matched to young mentors.

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 14-16

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 345 N. Neil St., C

Tickets: $10 and $7 for children 12 and younger

Information: and

Topics (1):Theater