The Power of Live Theater

The Penguin Project, a theater program for children with disabilities, gained prestigious recognition last November when it received the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program (NAHYP) Award.

Above: Dr. Andrew Morgan, founder and director of The Penguin Project, and 14-year-old Olivia Johnson accept the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, on November 9, 2017.

Founded in Peoria by Dr. Andrew Morgan, it’s grown into a national program across 15 states—clearly demonstrating the positive impact of the performing arts on all members of the community.

Award recipients are chosen from hundreds of nominees for effectively using creativity to promote learning and life skills—and receive $10,000 to support expansion of their programs. Since 2004, the Penguin Project has empowered local children with developmental disabilities by providing opportunities to participate in “Junior” productions of Broadway plays. Dr. Morgan, a lifelong thespian, recognized that some of his patients might benefit from the power of live theater.

“I saw the positive value [it] had for myself and my family in terms of developing communication skills, self-esteem and social skills,” he explains. “I realized these are the same things that were lacking in many of my patients, and I figured the theater would be a really good venue to try to enhance those skills.”

He was right: Penguin participants have flourished on stage, with about 80 percent returning each year. January’s production of Mary Poppins, Jr. alone gave 94 young performers a chance to shine. Each participant is matched with a nondisabled child of similar age—peer mentors who guide them through the process of learning lines, rehearsing and putting on a show. The pairing is mutually beneficial, instilling confidence and empathy in both kids.

Dr. Morgan, who directs each play himself, praises the dozens of dedicated volunteers (including his wife Kathy and daughter Lindsay Gates) who assist with choreography, costumes and backstage production. The stage crew also includes a certified music therapist, a registered counselor and a behavior analyst. Besides partnering with Eastlight Theatre for performances, they are working with ICC to establish new biannual performances featuring former Penguins. They’ve even been invited to perform in Las Vegas at the Kiwanis International Convention this summer.

The organization’s biggest challenge, says Dr. Morgan, is that the number of kids who want to get involved exceeds current capacity. He hopes the prestigious NAHYP Award will raise awareness, help the nonprofit apply for more grants, and continue to grow the program nationally. “We currently have 26 replication programs in 15 states around the country and we’re always looking to expand,” he says. “That’s our goal: to take this program to as many communities as we can.” a&s

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