The Lincoln Community Playhouse Executive Director Morrie Enders told us about the Penguin Project on February 1, 2019.
Established in 2004, The Penguin Project has evolved into a National program, with Chapter sites throughout the United States. The program provides a supportive environment for children with disabilities to explore their creative talents.  It has also demonstrated that participation in the performing arts has therapeutic value by enhancing social interaction, communication skills, self-confidence and self-esteem. The impact of the program has reached beyond the stage to create a social network for children who previously had very few friends and limited social opportunities.
 
From the website, (penguinproject.org) the group goals are:
  • Provide an opportunity for children with special needs to develop creative skills related to the theater arts
  • Provide an opportunity for children with special needs to participate in a community theater experience
  • Facilitate interaction between children with special needs and their age-level peers through joint participation in a community theater experience
  • Facilitate an appreciation of the challenges faced by children with special needs and their families
  • Identify the impact of a community theater experience on the communication skills, socialization, and self-esteem of children with special needs
  • Facilitate interaction among medical, developmental, educational, and theater professionals through participation in a common community project
  • Provide a forum for support and interaction for families of children with special needs
Artists and mentors work together as partners – the mentors job shadow and act as guardian angels during the production. The mentors work toward a friendship with the artists - to connect with them on and off the stage.
 
Morrie shared amazing stories. We heard about how the artists and mentors work together to make the productions a success. There are plenty of success stories of how the program has enhanced the lives of the children with disabilities, their families and their mentors.
 
The Lincoln Community Playhouse was the 4th chapter of the program which started in Illinois. There are now more than 30 chapters. The program started out as a special event but it has been so popular that it is now part of the season ticket package at the Lincoln Community Playhouse.
 
The official age for participation is 10 to 22 years of age. They start to work in February and the production is on stage in June so it takes a lot of time for each event.
 
Why Penguins? Penguins are birds that cannot fly, but they are great swimmers. They have social struggles as well as daily survival challenges, living in groups to help each other out. 
 
That is much of what the Penguin Project provides for participants. The group works together to support each other and overcome challenges. There are children in wheel chairs and walkers - the props and costumes are created to support the students as they are on stage. There was a nonverbal artist who made sounds but you could not understand the words. However, she learned to sing a song from a production - the words were clear and she was on pitch. An autistic child who normally does not like to touch unfamiliar people would put his arm around the shoulders or hug fellow artists and mentors.
 
Morrie calls it social change masquerading as a theatrical event. 
 
The Lincoln South Rotary Club Foundation has provided a mini grant to the Penguin Project.