MUSKEGON — Women Who Care of Muskegon County, the philanthropic group that supports a variety of causes in West Michigan, has donated more than $25,000 to The Penguin Project of Muskegon Civic Theatre (MCT).
Two hundred and 50 individual checks — totaling $25,100 — will support The Penguin Project’s 2018 production, “Aladdin Jr.” That musical comedy will be staged Oct. 20 and 21 at the historic Frauenthal Theater in downtown Muskegon.
The Penguin Project gives children, teens, and young adults with special needs an opportunity to perform in a community theatre production.
For the project, MCT partners with No More Sidelines. No More Sidelines is a non-profit organization, run by volunteers, that provides children with a special needs opportunities to play sports and participate in community events.
The young artists involved in The Penguin Project have a wide spectrum of special needs, among them Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and ADHD. Participation in the program enhances social skills, communication skills, and self-esteem.
The Penguin Project uses “Junior” versions of Broadway musicals, shows modified for young performers. Artists are matched with Peer Mentors who guide and assist them through rehearsals, and join them on stage in performances.
MCT and No More Sidelines first staged The Penguin Project in October 2017, when two performances of the musical “Annie Jr.” played to 1,200 people at the Frauenthal.
Brett VanTol, a Spring Lake resident whose daughter Kylee performed in the show, observed, “There were a lot of miracles on that stage.”
People touched by The Penguin Project, from performers to mentors audience members to parents, called the experiences transformative.
“To see our daughter smile with glee as an artist was heartwarming,” said Barb Miller, mother of performer Stephanie Miller. “To see her mentor beam with pride and joy over how much our daughter accomplished, and all they achieved together as a team, was equally heartwarming. To then see this in every artist/mentor pair was beyond measure.”
Muskegon in 2017 was the only Penguin Project production in the state of Michigan, and one of only 16 in the U.S. The Penguin Project Foundation and its national programming received the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor for such programs.
Through U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), The Penguin Project of Muskegon Civic Theatre received a 2017 Certificate of Congressional Recognition from the United States Senate.
Founded in June 2011, Women Who Care has a stated mission of “joining together to significantly impact organization and residents of Muskegon County.”
Donations are made quarterly, with individual members writing checks that collectively support specific organizations and causes.
Past awards from Women Who Care have gone to such groups as Kids Food Basket, the Child Abuse Council, Pathfinders, Camp Shout Out, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Pioneer Resources, Wings of Mercy, Boys and Girls Club, AgeWell Services, Every Woman’s Place/Webster House, etc.
(Photo: Holding checks to MCT from Women Who Care are, from left to right, Ashley Schnotala of Women Who Care; Heather McCallum, MCT administrator of education; Heidi Sunderhaft-Christiansen of MCT’s board of directors; Kirk Wahamaki, MCT’s artistic director; Jason Bertoia, MCT’s managing director; and Sue Allore of Women Who Care.)