Two Penguin Project participants. Photo courtesy national Penguin Project website.
About three months ago during a show, Stephen Gilbert, executive director of the Greenwood Community Theatre, found a model for a show that would feature children with special needs.
During intermission, Gilbert mentioned the model to Theo Lane, district manager of government and community relations for Duke Energy and one of the founding members of Project Hope, a center that will be opening in Greenwood in September to provide services to children with autism. He is also the father to a child with autism.
“As the parent of a son with autism, and having worked since 1997 to help enhance access for both educational and therapy services through Project Hope Foundation, I was thrilled when Stephen Gilbert approached me with this idea,” Lane said.
The model is called The Penguin Project and it is designed to give children with special needs an opportunity to participate in theater.
Gilbert sent an email to the founder of the project, Dr. Andy Morgan, that same night.
Morgan said the program provides an opportunity for increased socialization, improved communication skills, and a boost in self-confidence and assertiveness. Morgan is a developmental pediatrician, as well as an actor and director in Illinois.
“I saw from watching my own children how it helped them with communication and socialization,” Morgan said about the benefits of theater in general.
Partnering that observation with his work for children with special needs, The Penguin Project was born and has spread out to other communities.
“It’s really skyrocketed,” Morgan said. “We’ve seen the exact same magic in every replication.”
There are now 18 programs in 11 states, according to Morgan.
From left: Kirk Husser, president of the board at Greenwood Community Theatre; Mark Hyatt, director of marketing and public relations at Self Regional Healthcare; Stephen Gilbert, executive director at Greenwood Community Theatre; Mamie Nicholson, program officer for The Self Family Foundation; Theo Lane, district manager of government and community relations at Duke Energy; and Jimmy Burton, executive director at Burton Center come together to discuss the Penguin Project and the impact it will have on the community. Photo by Katie Pearson
Greenwood Community Theatre will be the first theater in South Carolina to replicate the program. Self Family Foundation, Self Regional Healthcare, Project Hope, Burton Center and Greenwood County Community Foundation have all agreed to partner with Greenwood Community Theatre to bring the production to life. The Genetic Center and local school districts have agreed to help with the program. Gilbert, along with each of the programs partners, are enthusiastic about the benefits Greenwood will see from the program.
The program is designed to work with special needs children ages 10-21. The program stars children with developmental, intellectual an learning disabilities, as well as visual and hearing impairments and neurological disorders.
During the first year at the Greenwood Community Theatre, children with physical disabilities might not be able to perform because of a lack of access to the stage, but Gilbert said a stage with handicap access might become available for the program after the first year.
Each special needs child in the production is accompanied by a peer mentor of the same age. Mentors will receive a crash course in therapy.
According to Morgan, previous productions have shown that not only do great relationships develop between actors and mentors, but the mentors learn that the actors are “just like other kids.”
Through this project, parents of special needs children get to see their child perform, which is something that might never have been possible before.
“Every child deserves access to theater,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s going to do a lot for the community.”
Throughout the program, Morgan, along with others who have experience in the program, will monitor information meetings, auditions and rehearsals, as well as attend one of the shows.
Information meetings are set to begin in April 2017, auditions will be in May and the show will be in September.