'Penguin Project' allows children with special needs to take center stage, earns national award

EAST PEORIA, Ill. - A central Illinois theater troupe is getting national recognition Thursday.

The Penguin Project gives children with special needs the chance to take center stage. Thursday it is one of a dozen programs honored in Washington DC with the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award. The program was chosen from a pool of more than 350 applicants.

Olivia Johnson transforms when she takes the stage, this time it's practicing for Mary Poppins Junior.

"I love to sing and dance!" Johnson says.

But, her family never imagined the 14-year-old would find herself on that stage, under that spotlight.

"We never knew what she would and wouldn't be able to do, um so to see her having fun and being confident and literally doing things that we never thought she'd be able to do." Olivia's Mom, Paula Johnson, explains.

Olivia has Autism Spectrum Disorder and Cerebral Palsy.

"They get a chance to be the starts, they are in front of the audience, they are the ones that have all the parts." Dr. Andrew Morgan says.

Dr. Morgan is a physician for children with special needs and CEO of the Penguin Project. For 14 years, he's cast, rehearsed, and watched these children shine.

"It creates a social environment and a social network where they have friends and they have people to hang out with and they're able to do things that other kids do." Dr. Morgan explains.

That's the case for Olivia, who was nearly non-verbal when she discovered the Penguin Project 3 years ago. But not anymore, taking the lead role of Polly Baker in "Crazy for You" last year.

"I think just getting that big part just bumped up her confidence level. She would almost like swagger in sometimes, not like arrogantly, but very confident. She felt good about herself."

When the lights go down and the stars take the stage there is no such thing as a disability, only abilities, celebrated at center stage.

Olivia, Paula, and Dr. Morgan are in DC to accept the award. The Penguin Project has 26 replications in 15 states, but they hope putting it in the spotlight will bring it to more communities.


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