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Everyone learns from the Penguin Project

two girls

Kelci Eaton with her artist, Alison

April 2017


"Our penguins may not be able to fly, but that does not prevent their spirits from soaring."

That motto drives the Penguin Project, a nationwide project that allows people with disabilities to be part of a theatrical production for no cost and with help from volunteer mentors. SAU junior Kelci Eaton volunteered last fall with the project as a mentor.

"The goal of the project is to make sure these kids are not ignored," she said. "This project also grows a stronger special needs community and brings people together."

Jeff Coussens, professor and chair of the Augustana College Theatre Department, brought the Penguin Project to the Quad Cities for the first time with the help of Dino and Tina Hayz, members of the Center for Living Arts.

The Penguin Project was built and designed to offer students with special needs, age 10 to 21, the chance to experience all the wonderful, community, and confidence-building benefits of performing live theater, according to the Penguin Project website.

Dino and Tina worked with Coussens to put on a production of Annie Jr. at Augustana's Brunner Theatre Center on March 3-5. The Hayzes were the executive producers, choreographers, and directors for the production. In addition, 19 volunteer mentors assisted 16 student artists.

"The mentors are the wings beneath or beside the artists," Eaton said. "I was with my artist all throughout the audition, rehearsal, and performance process."

Rehearsals began last October with 90-minute practices on Wednesdays and Fridays. Each rehearsal started with vocal and physical warm-ups, and then the students were broken into two groups, one for choreography with Tina and one for blocking (movement) with Dino. Each practice ended with all the students dancing to the song "Don't Stop Believing," and everyone yelling, "It is finished!" The production process was treated as any other production would be with only minor adjustments for certain cast members, Eaton said.

"The biggest challenge I faced with my artist was being able to read her mood at any given time," Eaton said. "I worked with her outside of rehearsals to ensure that she felt comfortable and prepared. Her family and I got very close and continue to see each other whenever we can."

Despite the challenges and effort to make the project successful, the experience was unforgettable, Eaton said. The project revealed that support can make anything happen. Even when it seems like the world is working against you, there is someone out there who will help.

"I learned that people can bring together something truly beautiful from the most unexpected circumstances," Eaton said. "I cannot describe the feelings that I felt or the amazingness that I encountered throughout the entire process."

The Penguin Project began in 2004 and developed into a national project that supplies an uplifting and encouraging environment for students with special needs. Eighty-six percent of artists reported being more independent after being part of the Penguin Project, according to the Penguin Project website. The local project intends to continue hosting a production in the Quad Cities and will start work on Beauty and the Beast in October 2017.

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