By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks
Performing on stage can be petrifying for some, but Dr. Andrew Morgan (Dr. Andy) and his wife, Kathy, use it as a tool to help kids with disabilities. The children find their self-confidence, improve communication skills, and build relationships through the Penguin Project.
In his professional life, Dr. Andy is a professor of clinical pediatrics and specializes in working with children with disabilities. But, he has been involved with theatre and musical performance since high school, even finding time for community theatre productions during medical school.
Originally from Baltimore, Dr. Andy and Kathy moved to Peoria to get away from big city crowds and traffic. Once in Peoria, Dr. Andy quickly landed a role in a production of “Guys and Dolls” at Peoria Players Theatre. Though he came to Peoria for the small town conveniences, it has been the extensive community theatre opportunities that encouraged him to stay.
Prior to the move, Kathy had studied and performed dance extensively, but had never been a part of a theatre production. That changed when the “Guys and Dolls” production needed dancers. Through that experience she immediately fell in love with live theatre. Eventually, she began to take on acting and speaking roles. “I was so nervous I hyperventilated before my first speaking role on stage,” she said.
The Penguin Project began as an annual theatre production for kids with disabilities in the Peoria area. Since its inception 9 years ago, it has grown into a foundation, with three other successful replication projects in DeKalb, Bloomington, and Barrington.
“The Penguin Project is a program I developed because of my interest in theatre and my professional involvement with children with disabilities,” said Dr. Andy. “Through my community activities, I realized that theatre is a good way to enhance socialization and communication skills and to build self-esteem, so I decided it would be a good thing to put the two together.”
Penguins inspired the naming of the project because they are among the only birds that cannot fly. Despite their apparent disability, they continue to grow and thrive. On the Penguin Project website it states, “like our young artists, [penguins] have adapted to the challenges of their environment, and have not allowed their unique difference to interfere with their lives.”
Participants in the program include children with a full range of physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities as well as parents, community volunteers, and peer mentors. “Each child is matched with a non-disabled, or typically developing partner called a peer mentor,” said Dr. Andy. “That really is the backbone of the program. The kids work together in partnerships throughout the four months of rehearsal.”
Once kids gain experience on the stage and build their confidence, some choose to “fly solo.” They still work in pairs, but do not have a peer mentor, enabling them to become more independent.
Dr. Andy certainly has accomplished his intended goal that the kids involved in the program grow in their personal communication skills, socialization, and self-confidence, but he never expected the extraordinary relationships that were to come from the project.
“This has created an opportunity for the kids to develop friendships… going to parties, going bowling, sleeping over, going shopping together, and that’s really what’s been the most dramatic change,” said Dr. Andy.
“The best part for me is watching and feeling the joy,” said Kathy. “There is an overabundance of acceptance, joy, and love of these kids for each other, for the process, and for us. It’s hard to explain. I had no idea the impact that it would have on everybody involved. It’s not just the finished product, its what these kids can accomplish. It’s beyond anybody’s imagination, and it’s a beautiful concept.”
This year’s Penguin Project production is “Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr.” which is based on the Broadway musical. There are 87 kids involved, ranging in age from 10 to 21, who have been working since September to put on the show. “They are the stars,” said Dr. Andy “They are the leads and the chorus.”
The show opens Friday, January 18th at 7:30 p.m. at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria. There are also shows Saturday the 19th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 20th at 2:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at eatlighttheatre.com or by phone at 309-699-7469. Find out more about the Penguin Project and get involved at www.penguinproject.org.