The Belton Journal

   Jennifer Ramirez updated the Belton Lions Club on the second annual theater production through The Penguin Project.

   This program uses special needs children and volunteers to produce a play. This year they will perform Finding Nemo Jr. at Lake Belton High School’s Performing Arts Center. Performances will be April 26 & 27 at 7 pm. and April 28th at 2 pm.

   The Belton Independent School District students have rehearsals every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at North Belton Middle School from 5 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. for at least six weeks prior to production.

   Each student actor is matched with a mentor. They assist with where to stand and help them with their lines.

   There are currently five Penguin Project locations in the Texas Public School system. These productions are unique, because all the roles are filled by young artists with developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other neurological disorders.

   They are joined on stage by a dedicated group of “peer mentors” – children the same age without disabilities who have volunteered to work side-by-side with them through months of rehearsals and through the final performance.

   By providing access to community theater, The Penguin Project demonstrates that the special challenges of a disability should not handicap a child’s ability to participate in life’s experiences.

   Established in 2004, The Penguin Project has evolved into a National program, with Chapter sites throughout the United States. The program provides a supportive environment for children with disabilities to explore their creative talents. It has also demonstrated that participation in the performing arts has therapeutic value by enhancing social interaction, communication skills, self-confidence and self-esteem. The impact of the program has reached beyond the stage to create a social network for children who previously had very few friends and limited social opportunities.

   “It is a high-quality performance. It is magical when it all comes together. The families come to these practices and develop friendships. The first year was tough getting the word out. This year we have seen triple the number of participants (actors/mentors). Teachers from all over the sprawling BISD school system help with the Penguin Project production. There is even a mentor boot camp,” said Ramirez.

   Penguin Project productions provide an opportunity for children with special needs to develop creative skills related to the theater arts.They also provide an opportunity for children with special needs to participate in a community theater experience, and facilitate interaction between children with special needs and their age-level peers through joint participation.

   Also, this type of production facilitates an appreciation of the challenges faced by children with special needs and their families.