CI HERO: ‘You can’t stop the beat’ when it comes to the Penguin Project’s founder

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Members of the Penguin Project are rehearsing for their annual performance. This year, they’ll be presenting “Hairspray, Jr.” While the actors will get their recognition next week, this week’s CI Hero is the man who brings them all together. 

Victoria Williams is one of the many talented actresses taking the stage for “Hairspray, Jr.” 

“My favorite part is being here with all my friends in Penguin. They mean a lot and I love making a lot of new friends here.” 

That’s really what the Penguin Project is all about: helping children with special needs build relationships and develop social skills.

“There really aren’t words for it,” says Paula Johnson, whose child is part of Penguin Project. “When you have a young child with disabilities, you don’t know what their future is going to look like at all. You don’t know if they’re going to have any of the opportunities when they’re little. It’s hard to go out to eat; it’s hard to go anywhere. Then you come some place like this where they aren’t just accepted for who they are, but they’re appreciated and loved for who they are. It’s incredibly powerful.” 

Dr. Andy Morgan started the Penguin Project 15 years ago. He recognized how much theater helped his own kids build their self-esteem and communication, and wanted to do the same for children with special needs. Through the Penguin Project, each child is partnered with a peer mentor who stands side-by-side with them throughout the performance.

“I think watching the kids with each other, to see these are kids that were previously not engaged at all and now they’ve got friends. They’re walking together, they’re hand in hand, they’re playing together, they’re doing things nobody ever thought they would,” says Dr. Andy.

Olivia Johnson has cerebral palsy and autism and is in her fifth year with the group. When asked about her favorite part of performing, she says, “I think I like dancing more because I can feel all that energy in me.” 

Olivia’s mom says it’s been a journey watching her daughter grow and connect with other children through the Penguin Project. Her mom has benefited from it, too.

“All of us parents who didn’t necessarily get to form groups with other parents when our kids were little because we were just too busy trying to get from therapy appointment to therapy appointment, and get from day to day, now we have a group as well where nobody is looking funny at our kid,” says Paula Johnson. 

With opening night around the corner, the performers say they’re ready.

“For the past few weeks we’ve been in a lot of dancing and singing on stage,” says Williams. “A lot of switching around but we get it all perfect and all correct.” 

With a theater sure to be packed, there’s one audience member who’ll be most proud of their performance.

“It’s a wonderful thing to realize that you had a part in all of this,” says Dr. Andy. “The credit goes to all the kids and all the parents. They’re just terrific, but it’s wonderful to sit back and watch all this evolve.”

Performances of “Hairspray, Jr.” run January 18-20. You can get tickets here.

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