The Penguin Project®, founded by Dr. Andrew Morgan in 2003 in Peoria, Illinois, is a national non-profit organization with the vision of creating unrestricted access for children with special needs to the performing arts. “Dr. Andy” is the founder and director of the Penguin Project. He is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Pediatrics and the former Head of the Division of Child Development at the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine at Peoria. He has been the primary medical specialist in central Illinois involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities for over 35 years.
He created The Penguin Project recognizing that theater not only provides children with a valuable recreational experience and an opportunity to display their creative talents, but also enhances social interaction, communication skills, assertiveness, and self-esteem. The Penguin Project strives to demonstrate that individuals with disabilities are fully capable of participating in community activities with the same dedication and enthusiasm as others if given opportunity and support.
Dr. Morgan’s dream was to have the Penguin Project® in communities across the United States. This dream has come true for him. The Bloomington-Normal program, Penguin Project® McLean, was the first replication site for The Penguin Project®. The first production was done in 2009. In 2018 we will be performing our 10th show. There are now 26 other replication sites across the United States. It has become a national program.
So why Penguins? The origin of the name “Penguin Project” comes from the unique characteristics of penguins. They are extremely playful and curious, and they work and play together. More importantly, they have a “disability” that distinguishes them from other birds - they can’t fly! Instead, penguins waddle and toboggan on their bellies over the snow, and are excellent swimmers. Like the participants in the program, they have adapted to the challenges of their environment and have not allowed their unique difference to interfere with their lives.
Young Artists With Disabilities
The Penguin Project is open to any individual age 10 to 24 with a disability. This includes children with cognitive, learning, motor, hearing, and visual impairments, genetic disorders, and neurological disorders. There are no restrictions based on the level of cognitive ability, restriction of mobility, or lack of communication skills. Because of concerns for safety, however, we are unable to accept anyone with a severe behavioral disturbance that might endanger himself/herself or others.
The Penguin Project utilizes a “peer mentor” system, linking each young artist with an age level peer, between 12 and 24, who typically does not have a disability. The peer-mentors work side-by-side with their partners, assisting them throughout the entire rehearsal process and on stage. The mentors are responsible for knowing all of the lines, songs, and blocking of their partners. They are on-stage during the production, costumed to match or compliment their partners. They participate in the group production numbers, but are trained to remain “in the background” and provide direct assistance only as needed.