As I have mentioned in previous columns I have written, one of the perks to the job of reporting the news comes when you get to tell stories about things that have a meaningful impact in the lives of others in your community. Since working at the Ledger for nearly the past three years, I have had the opportunity to spread the word about one program here in our community that has had a truly significant impact on the lives of all those involved: The Penguin Project. 

In talking with Playhouse Executive Director Lisa Cope for previous stories, I would ask if she considers the program one of the most important the Playhouse in the Park does. The reply is always the same, an enthusiastic yes. 

The program has helped young people with disabilities grace the stage of the Playhouse since 2014, and Sunday marked the first time I was able to attend a performance. Though I had written about how meaningful and special these shows were, it was nice to finally witness all of the fruits that came from the four months of hard work put in by the Penguins, their mentors and the rest of the volunteers at the Playhouse. 

It is hard for me to recall such a positive and supportive atmosphere as the one in the theater on Sunday. Every artist on the stage seemed to get a thrill out of the response from the audience, and upon exiting the theater, I don’t recall seeing a single disappointed face. 

My friend Tim Peyton was also there for his first time seeing the Penguin Project. As we were walking out, he mentioned that he teared up quite a few times throughout the show, as did I. I doubt anyone in the audience would be able to not be moved to some measure of emotion after seeing the enthusiasm those young people had for their hard work. 

One of my favorite things was what you got to learn about each of the artists performing. In each of the programs, a biography about each performer was featured, connecting the audience even more with them. 

This year, the Penguins tackled “Shrek Jr.” and did a phenomenal job. It was funny, heartwarming and the musical numbers were truly outstanding. Every laugh or round of applause seemed to mean the world to the performers, and you would be hard-pressed to find a frown within the building. 

After seeing the fruits of the labor, I now understand what it must mean to the kids and parents who benefit the most from this program. There aren’t many opportunities for inclusion in today’s world, and using a theatrical production as a vehicle to teach these young individuals better communication skills while simultaneously building their self-confidence is truly spectacular. 

As much as it moved me to watch them perform, I can only imagine how much it moves the hearts of the parents and family members of these kids. What I saw on Sunday was one of the most heartwarming and inspiring things I have experienced in a long time.

I will be planning to make it to every production this truly amazing group pursues each year, and you should do the same. 

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