Mentoring and the arts combine, and the results are life-changing
By Tessa Adams
Lights…camera…impact a child’s life while enhancing your own understanding of compassion! Not the typical theater saying you’re used to? The Penguin Project isn’t your typical theater experience.
The participants involved in this Gettysburg Community Theatre program say their experiences have been life-changing and enriching, while their parents have created unexpected, lifelong friendships.
The Penguin Project is for youth ages 10-21 with and without special needs. “Youth without special needs become peer mentors and help the youth actors with special needs,” says Chad-Alan Carr, Gettysburg Community Theatre’s executive director. “The name comes from the fact that penguins are special needs birds; they cannot fly, but they thrive equally as well as any other bird in their own environment. Our penguins may not be able to fly either, but their spirits certainly soar on stage.”
The peer mentors may be the ones with the most life-changing experience from the program. Kalia, an 11-year-old peer mentor, has been involved with The Penguin Project for about two years. Kalia smiled as she remembered her most recent “buddy,” as she called her, who didn’t participate much the first day. “My mentee was shy and didn’t like to dance much, but her mom bribed her with cheesecake and then she would dance,” she says.
As a seasoned peer mentor, Kalia says she and other veteran mentors become protective over their buddies and find themselves mentoring the new peer mentors as well.
Lily, Kalia’s older sister, agreed. Now 14, Lily’s schedule is packed, but she and Kalia are adamant about their dedication to The Penguin Project. Both love helping their buddies and watching them “come alive” on stage. “It’s eye opening to see how much a person can grow,” says Lily. “It can be emotional.”
“I just remember this one girl who was afraid of walking up the steps, and her mom came to every practice to help her,” Lily says. “She could have taken her [daughter]on the wheelchair ramp, but she helped her confront her fears every single practice. I wouldn’t have known the patience it takes to be a parent of a child with special needs without my experience with The Penguin Project.”
The Penguin Project’s founder Andrew Morgan, M.D., a successful, well-known professor in Illinois, created the program with the goal of giving children with special needs the opportunity to be a part of his theater family. The Penguin Project has since evolved into a national program with nearly 30 chapters in 15 states, and Gettysburg Community Theatre was the first to replicate the program outside of Illinois.
Gina McInturff, mother of a youth actor named Payton, can’t recommend the program highly enough. “It offers kids like Payton a chance to shine and create friendships that they may not have had an opportunity [to]otherwise,” she says. “I also think it’s just as great for the mentors. It gives them the ability to learn acceptance and open their hearts in a way they may have never thought. The program has given our son so much. I can’t imagine how different things would be if we wouldn’t have done that first show.”
Payton has been involved with four Penguin Project performances and was matched with Steph Gladfelter’s children, Brandon and Ashley. Not only did Gina and Steph find friendship through the program, but their children did as well. Gina says Brandon and Ashley have given Payton opportunities and experiences he would not have had otherwise. “Three weeks after Ashley started college, Steph took Brandon and Payton to see her for family day,” Gina says. “He came home with a Shippensburg T-shirt that said, ‘Part of the family.’”
Gina’s favorite Penguin Project memory is the time she approached Payton and his mentor with a group of other children. “He was smiling and laughing,” she remembers. “When I went over to him he, very politely, said, ‘Please leave me, Mommy. I’m with my friends.’ This was one of the best moments. He really was with his friends, and they were treating him just like any other kid. It brought tears to my eyes.”
The Penguin Project has big plans for 2019 with its performance of “Madagascar—A Musical Adventure,” August 16-18 at the Eichelberger Performing Arts Center in Hanover. Never miss an opportunity to volunteer, donate, or experience any of Gettysburg Community Theatre’s fantastic performances or opportunities by signing up for the organization’s newsletter. “We always need help with sewing costumes, painting, ushering, and supervising youth,” Carr says. Visit www.gettysburgcommunitytheatre.org to subscribe.