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Penguin Project makes dreams come true for Sun Prairie kids with special needs

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Penguin group

Artistic director Russell Wolff, left, and music director Jenni Freitag lead participants in a choreographed dance to "Don't Stop Believin'" during an annual meeting for the Sun Prairie chapter of the Penguin Project, a national organization of theaters for students with disabilities, at Sun Prairie United Methodist Church in Sun Prairie. It's a Penguin Project tradition to perform the song after each rehearsal and performance. They follow a nationally established choreography routine.

SUN PRAIRIE — Penguins are a noteworthy bird in Sun Prairie.

They aren’t a rival for the Sun Prairie Cardinals, but they do compete for the spotlight come June when penguins of all kinds take the stage at the theater. Penguins don’t always get the chance to shine, so it’s a welcome opportunity.

What brings them out in the warm summer weather? The Sun Prairie chapter of The Penguin Project, a Peoria, Illinois-based organization founded in 2004, which gives children with special needs the chance to perform in musical theater. It partners artists with disabilities with peer mentors, and together they put together a musical.

The Sun Prairie chapter is run through the Sun Prairie Civic Theatre.

“It’s called The Penguin Project because penguins are birds that can’t fly, but they can do everything else,” said Sandi Klein, a volunteer with the project.

Sandi Klein and Miguel

Miguel Orosco, 10, right, hugs volunteer Sandi Klein as she greets people at the door during the annual Penguin Project informational meeting. Klein, in her second year working with the project, has gained the nickname "Granny Hugs" from the students. After she saw the Sun Prairie chapter's first production, "Annie Jr.," in 2016 she burst into tears and knew the program was one she needed to work with. 

The Penguin Project was given a 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, which placed the group in the national spotlight and provided $10,000 to further its programming.

The awards program officially closed Dec. 31, 2017, after 19 years.

The Penguin Project has been going strong in Sun Prairie for three years since program director Sara Beth Hahner brought the idea there in 2015. Support since then has been astounding — the rewards have been even more so, those involved say.

Earlier this month, dozens upon dozens of interested people came out for the annual informational meeting. So many people showed up that volunteers had to bring out more tables to accommodate everyone.

There were hugs and huge smiles all around between new faces and old.

Sedona and Lakshmi

Artist Sedona Shutter, 22, left, and Lakshmi Vemuri, a former mentor, perform a dance routine to "Don't Stop Believin.'" Positive word of mouth has helped the Sun Prairie Penguin Project grow over the last few years, according to program director Sara Beth Hahner. "It's our best recruitment tool," she said. "People see the program or siblings of artists will come in and be mentors and then tell their friends about it. We see some special bonds happening with these kids." 

The conversations on that chilly January day turned quickly from on to off stage. The Penguin Project’s reach extends far beyond the final curtain for those involved.

It’s an opportunity for students to “share the magic of theater” while also building a community, said Julie Rodgers, mother to two mentors.

“It is a way of opening new friendships, learning and showing empathy and just meeting other people to find out we really are all the same,” Clark Rodgers said.

Typically, The Penguin Project serves participants ranging from 10 to 21 years old, although that range can vary based on the individuals, Hahner said.

Though the mentors will likely not perform their artists’ role during the show, each must learn the parts just in case they’re called onstage as an understudy.

Sara Beth Hahner

Sara Beth Hahner, program director for the Sun Prairie chapter of The Penguin Project, knew the program would be a great fit in the community of Sun Prairie. "We have a civic theater that has been consistently producing seasons for over 45 years, very creative and dedicated technical designers and a venue that was built practically in my backyard," she added. "...I knew the relationship that the civic theater has with the city and with the school (this program) could easily come together. It just needed someone to make it happen." 

Mentors need to know the ins and outs of the artist’s role just as well as the artist, Hahner said.

For artists who need their mentor to be on stage with them, there are ways of integrating the mentors into the scene making them more inconspicuous.

In last season’s “Guys and Dolls,” for example, the gamblers were getting newspapers in one of the opening scenes so mentors could hide behind newspapers if they needed to remind their artist of a line, Hahner said.

For those involved in the program, it’s a long process. Rehearsals begin in mid-February for the June performances. That’s nearly five months of rehearsal, which can make some interested participants skittish at first, but it’s necessary for the students.

Emma, Hannah and Belle

Mentor Emma McKenna, 9, left center, hugs her sister, Hannah, 12, lower, and Belle Pederson, 11, right center, both artists. Part of what makes The Penguin Project special is the strong bonds that form between mentors and artists through the process. The students grow in many different ways, according to program director Sara Beth Hahner. "A lot of it comes from learning how to be kind, how to be compassionate, how to be a problem solver, knowing what do to in a situation and how to keep your artist safe." 

Hahner said rehearsals are gradually introduced to the artists which makes it a longer process.

“Maybe (the artists) have been in mainstream rehearsals before or have profound special needs and need assistance or they’re new to being in a youth activity,” she said. “We have a wide spectrum of participants so we really take it slow.”

Ample rehearsal time is, however, an excellent way for the artists and mentors to bond.

Michelle Boles, 14, has been a mentor with the Sun Prairie Penguin Project since its first year. She advises anyone interested in becoming a mentor to be open to the new friendships The Penguin Project provides its participants.

Be friends with the artists, help them through the frustrating moments and get to know them, she said.

Katie Fransee

Artist Katie Fransee, 24, center, talks with mentors Emma Bryant, 16, left, and Samantha Wilcox, 16, at right. Fransee got involved with the Sun Prairie Penguin Project last year. She said the work Penguin Project does wouldn't be possible if everyone didn't work together. Her most important advice for new participants is to "be happy and have a great time." 

Putting in the long hours of rehearsals is well worth it once the artists hit the stage.

“Being able, at the end, to see your artist on stage having fun and doing the production and knowing all their lines and singing and dancing is really nice,” Boles added. “It’s nice knowing I helped them do that.”

The Penguin Project can be absolutely transformative. It can take shy young people, put them on stage and give them the confidence to sing their hearts out. Klein saw that firsthand last season, her first with the project.

She said once the students really get into the production it was a beautiful thing to watch the artists evolve through the process, especially if they hadn’t performed before.

One such artist is Katie Fransee, 24, who made her Penguin Project debut last season as Sister Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls Jr.” For her it was an experience of a lifetime.

Fransee emphasized how important it is for the artists and mentors to work together to make the magic of The Penguin Project happen.

“It was a dream come true,” she said.

“Being able, at the end, to see your artist on stage having fun and doing the production and knowing all their lines and singing and dancing is really nice. It’s nice knowing I helped them do that.” Michelle Boles, 14, volunteer

Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.