Andrew Morgan has been involved in community theatre for decades—since he was a high school student. Theatre has never ceased to be a passion, even as he’s maintained a busy career working as a pediatrician for disabled children. In 2004, Morgan was struck with an idea: Why not combine the two? “I recognized the tremendous benefit theatre had on social and communication skills, and self-esteem,” he says. “These are the same things that were lacking in many of my patients.”
Morgan partnered with a local community theatre and established the Penguin Project, a performance program that pairs disabled children and teenagers with non-disabled kids as mentors. The mentors guide the children with special needs throughout rehearsals and stay with them onstage during performances. The doctor uses words like “magical” and “life-changing” to describe his first experiences directing the program. “It was incredible,” he says. “In all my years of working with children with disabilities, I’d never experienced anything like it.”
What Morgan noticed then, and what continues to happen, is that disabled children are discovering their untapped capabilities. He recalls meeting a child who had never sung in her life stepping up to play Ariel—and blowing audiences away—in a production of The Little Mermaid; or seeing another child, wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, getting up to dance in the middle of a performance. “Onstage, so many of these disabilities and special needs disappear,” explains the doctor. “While they’re on that stage performing, it seems as if something magical takes over. They overcome their challenges.” Morgan says that parents often don’t recognize their own children onstage; “they didn’t think it was possible,” he says.
“We’re creating opportunities for the children with disabilities and special needs to prove that they really are capable of doing incredible things if they’re given the opportunities and support,” explains Morgan.
The true beauty of the Penguin Project, however, lies in its potential to enhance the social networks of these children. “This is what really creates the magic. It’s incredible to see the ways these partnerships form,” explains Morgan. “In addition to enhancing skills, what we recognized early on is that many of these children had no friends and limited social networks—this really enhanced those….We have children who never went out to parties or the movies, but now they’re hanging out together all the time.” The program, through its mentorship aspect, has helped establish real friendships that continue well beyond the final performance. “As we’ve moved through the program, we’ve found this to be the most important part of what we’re doing,” says Morgan. In this sense, the Penguin Project changes the lives of both the disabled and non-disabled children, a sentiment he hears often from participants and their families.
The Penguin Project has now evolved into a National program, with replica initiatives in several states through partnerships with theatres, schools, and churches. This year, the program is a finalist for the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and the foundation’s penguin logo is fast becoming a symbol of hope and positivity.
“Penguins are disabled birds. They can’t fly, so they’ve adjusted. They swim, they waddle, they toboggan. They’re playful and cheerful, and they work together to achieve their common goals,” says Morgan. “That’s exactly what we see happening with our kids.”
Learn more about the Penguin Project by visiting PenguinProject.org.