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On a happy note: Penguin Project creating choir for special needs adults

STERLING – A new creative outlet for Sauk Valley adults with special needs is being launched this year.

The Woodlawn Arts Academy is the recipient of a $10,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant that it will share with its partner, the Penguin Project of the Sauk Valley, to create a Broadway-revue-style musical group, as well as to enhance the theater program for special needs youth for which the Penguin Project is known.

Started locally in November 2019, it brings the performing arts experience to those ages 10 to 21 with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, cognitive or learning disabilities, hearing or visual impairments, and genetic or neurological disorders.

Participants, with the side-by-side help of their peer mentors, audition for, rehearse and perform modified versions of musicals once a year. This fall, it was “Schoolhouse Rock.”

Woodlawn partners with the group, which has 19 Penguins now, but is hoping for at least four or five more.

Penguin Project Show Director Natalie Gordon's selfie taken with Assistant Director Kalie Conklin (center row, left), Music Director Brandi Spreeman (center row, middle) and Program Director Dawn Arndt (center row, right) along with particpants and peer mentors.

Penguin Project Show Director Natalie Gordon’s selfie taken with Assistant Director Kalie Conklin (center row, left), Music Director Brandi Spreeman (center row, middle) and Program Director Dawn Arndt (center row, right) along with particpants and peer mentors. (Submitted/)

The grant not only will help with theater production with costs such as costumes and sets, but also will be used to start the choir, which will be for people 23 and older, program director Dawn Arndt said.

The program will last 6 weeks, and she’s hoping for about 15 participants.

Volunteers will be needed for the choir as well, but they won’t be as hands-on as with the theater performers. The more volunteers she gets, the more singers she can have, Arndt said, adding that choir isn’t exactly the right term. There will be songs and some solos, but also dances, occasionally lines and maybe some prop use.

The details still are being worked out, but it will launch at the end of this year, with performances likely will in early 2023 at Woodlawn Arts Academy.

Plans were in the works for some time to create the choir, but the NEA grant means they can bring it to life more than two years sooner than planned, Arndt said.

About $2,000 of the grant money will be needed to start the musical group, most of which will pay the licensing fees for the songs they choose to use.

The rest will go to the theater program.

“We’re really excited,” Arndt said. “I can give my actors an experience they haven’t had before. It’s going to be so much fun.”

By that she means they’ll be able to afford to rent real costumes for their next production, “Alice in Wonderland Jr.,” rather than fashion what they can from thrift store finds. They’ll be able to use professional stage makeup, and fashion better sets and props.

Those performances are held at Centennial Auditorium at Sterling High School.

“This allows us to really up our game, so I’m real excited about this,” Arndt said. “We can rent a really nice caterpillar instead of making one out of a sleeping bag.”

Participants, peer mentors and staff of The Penguin Project of the Sauk Valley pose after a rehearsal in fall 2021.

Participants, peer mentors and staff of The Penguin Project of the Sauk Valley pose after a rehearsal in fall 2021. (Submitted/)

Best of all, the grant will help them save money they had planned to spend on upcoming productions, so now they are funded three years out – “three years in advance that we know we can have shows,” Arndt said. “It is beyond our wildest dreams.”

Arndt find her involvement with the Penguin Project beyond fulfilling, and she hopes people will come to their shows and see that the Penguin Project has some of the most talented performers the area has to offer.

“Don’t discount people because they’re just a little different. They just follow a different path, but they’re going to get there, and the way that they do it is sometimes very magical.”

To get involved

For information, to make a tax-deductible donation or become a volunteer, email Dawn Arndt at dawn.ppsv@gmail.com, go to www.penguinprojectsv.com or find Penguin Project of the Sauk Valley on Facebook. Every penny donated goes back into the program, which is run entirely by volunteers.

Go to www.woodlawnartsacademy.com or find Woodlawn Arts Academy on Facebook to learn more about the art, dance, music and theater programs it offers.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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