Thursday, January 17, 2008

Support for Special Needs Kids

The Penguin Project is a play put on in Central Illinois by kids who have disabilities. The kids with disabilities all have peer mentors to help them memorize their actions and songs.
The Penguin Project is such a big deal for these kids and their parents. I could see the happiness in all their faces. I am grateful Dr. Andrew Morgan (the Medical Director for Easter Seals in Central Illinois) came up with this idea.

I took my 4-year-old son to the program. I had a hard time explaining to him what he was about to see. He took speech classes at Easter Seals when he was younger, but he really hasn't been exposed to kids who have obvious disabilities. So, I went on a search to find out the best way to explain the situation to a young child.

I talked to Katie Hogan, the Executive Director for the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Society (HISRA). HISRA is a cooperative extension of Morton, Peoria, Chillicothe and Washington Park Districts. It coordinates all of the recreation programming for individuals with disabilities in these districts. Here's Katie's advice:

"I usually begin by explaining to kids that each of our bodies and brains works in different ways. Then (depending upon the age) I explain how someone with a disability may have a brain that works a bit differently (or body.) I get into some detail for individual disabilities. I always explain it is not contagious, but often compare a disability to the cold or the flu when discussing how children with a particular disability (such as CP or Autism) may have it in varying degrees."

Here are some tips I found on a message board:

"The truth is what you tell them. I have a son who is 5 with Down Syndrome, he was getting off the bus as I heard a neighbor child say that he was getting off the stupid bus...I told the child its a special needs bus for special children, but they are just like my other children and like all other children, just a bit different, and maybe slower than other children.....and that's all I told mostly want them to understand your child not be scared of them or to feel sorry for them, just treat them as any other child.....a lot has to do with that they don't understand...and also part could be how they hear others talk about other people could be an just tell them the truth....they will understand." Anonymous Mom

"Explain things to children in words and contexts that they understand, and always model the appropriate forms of language and social cues. Also, I always allow them to ask any questions, so I might add "So do you have any more questions?"Sometimes, children need more than one concrete example or explanation in order for them to grasp something novel the first time.We cannot expect them to grasp and change their mentality and perceptions right away. So it takes time, patience, and practice. In short, children model what they see, hear, touch, experience,etc., and so it is up to the adults to set the standards or goals early on. "Milflores(Advisor/Educator)

I just spoke with Dr. Morgan from the Penguin Project. He says to wait until the child who is typically developing to notice differences when kids are young. He said,"I'm not for sure you need any explanation. These children are performers. Young kids don't necessarily identify these kids as being handicapped."

I completely agree. My 4-year-old definitely didn't notice the kids had disabilities. He just clapped and danced in his chair and kept asking when they were going to sing again! He loved it!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What is the best way to explain kids with disabilities to a child who is typically developing? If you are involved with the Penguin Project, let me know why it's important to you and what kind of an impact it has on your life.

-NewsAnchorMom Jen

15 comments: said...

I got this great comment via email:

The reason Penguin Project is important to me is because my daughter has a hearing problem. She is alway being told to quiet down because she talks louder than most. This program lets all the kids with disabilities be themselves. It raises their self esteem and lets them be proud of themselves. It also shows others regardless of a disability that these kids can do a lot of the same things that others can do. My daughter has come out of her shell at least during the Penguin Project and made many special and close friends who accept her the way that she is and not the way that they want her to be.
Vicki Camp said...

Here's another great comment I received via e-mail:

My name is Kim Smith and my daughter Kaci has autism and was involved in the Penguin Project this year as she has been for the previous three years. This being her fourth show, we have noticed a DRAMATIC change in Kaci and her growth. The first year, Kaci was not the most cooperative child in the fact, Dr. Andy asked if we really thought that Kaci could handle the situation. She has since grown to be a very confidant, vocal and respectful Penguin. What a ride the Penguin Project has taken us is truly something that every child with a disability should have the opportunity to participate in.

Thank you for your time.

Kim Smith

Karen Olehy said...

Our daughter, who has Stickler Syndrome, has been in the Peguin Project for 2 years and during that time she has made so many friends and she loves being involved in the Project. She has had 30 surgeries to date and is hearing and visually impaired, also. Everyone involved with the Project is so understanding with our kids (with their special abilities) and no one has a "disabaility". Dr. Andy, Kathy, Tracey, Kim, Kathy C. and everyone on the Production Staff work so hard and they are so understanding and patient, and most importantly -they find each child's strengths and talents (which everyone has) and they utilize those talents in the play. I truly appreciate all of their hard work with our kids. I hope that the Penguin Project is spread all over the State of Illinois, maybe even the U.S., as it would be great to see every (special ability) child to have the fantastic opportunity of participating in this Project.
Karen Olehy said...

Here's another great comment via email:
This was the first year that I became aware of this outstanding program, The Penguin Project. To really understand the importance I believe you would have to live the life of a parent of a child with a disability. In my child's case he has social issues due to the fact that he has Aspergers, it's in the Autism spectrum. We moved here a couple of years ago from another state which had a program in the schools to help the autistic children integrate with the general education population. However after we moved here, out in the country, isolated from the general public and in a smaller school district which has no clue on how to deal with my child, things seemed to get worse as far as my child being able to try and make friends. He is shipped off to another school which discourages their children from interacting outside of the school. This is due to the fact that all the kids who go to this school have behavioral problems. My child has the ability to be very talented but his Autism gets in the way. The Penguin Project understands his differences and works with him as well as other children with various disabilities. Not only is the Penguin Project a way for my child to explore his talents, but it has given him the opportunity to make some friends. The children not only enjoy the theater arts but they are a tremendous support system for each other. It is the most awesome thing I have ever experienced. Selfishly I now have a support system too. I was unaware of how many people still exist in our society today who have genuine compassion. These children have a lot to give if only they were given a chance and now with the Penguin Project they have.

Catherine Raine said...

Here's another great comment about the Penguin Project:

Andy Morgan sent us an e-mail with some info about you and your web site. It's an interesting site; something that could be beneficial to so many families. Good idea!
Our daughter was in the production for the first time this year and had an amazing experience! She has a new resource teacher at school this year, and she is the one who sent the Penguin Project info home with Skye. We had not heard of it before. After seeing all of the media coverage this year, I'm not sure what rock we were under to not have heard of it! Maybe this was a bigger media year.
A program like the Pengin's is an important opportunity for kids with disabilities because they are able to spend time with peers in a capacity that is exciting, challenging, and rewarding. They spent so much time together, like a family. And like a family, they had disagreements/challenges and learned to adapt from them. They also supported eachother like you wouldn't believe! This project gives the kids a chance to show what they can do in the same arena's that their non-disabled peers have so much assess to. Sometimes so much of the notice given to them is because of their disibilities and what limitations they may have. Not the Penguin Project...they focused on what the kids COULD do. They really supported them if they felt inadequate or unable to conquer a certain challenge. It's a kind of program that the kids can call their "own" and look forward to. It's also a fabulous opportunity for the non-disabled mentors to better understand their disabled peers. It takes a special kind of kid to commit to something like this. Now, how can we get even more involved in something of this magnitude?
We look at the Penguin Project as one of those life experiences that changes us. We saw our daughter grow and learn from the experience in wonderful ways. She has been using skills like self-regulation, words instead of actions, trust, compassion, flexibility, and more. These are all things she is capable of, yet doesn't often choose, because she tends to feel more defensive when among peers.
The experience has given her a great deal of confidence in herself, and others. She made so many friends!
Her relationship with her 3 brothers is always a work in progress, but we have also seen some positive things there as a result. That, in turn, reduces stress. How can you go wrong?!
The experience was also good for me-I was able to meet new families and revisit familiar ones, too. I believe it is just as important for parents to have a support network as it is for the kids, and all those practices gave us a chance to lean on eachother in ways only another parent of a disabled child could understand.
We don't know how long, or consistent these result will be, however we will celebrate every success and draw on those when times are rough. Keeping in touch with the Penguin's for the rest of the year is a must!
I'm always available to talk if you have any questions. Being a "rookie" family, we only have this year's experience to draw on, but we look forward to more to come!

Susan Mayo

PS. Our daughter, Skye (10), played "Kelsie" in the production.
PSS. Skye was also able to benefit from hearing other parents share stories with her about their own kids experiences-good and bad. This helped her not feel like she's the only one who's "different".

Carol Hall said...

Penguin Project has truly become so special in our house. I have a son who has now been in the last two productions. This year though my daughter was also in the production as a mentor. They both love the stage and being creative in that setting. Penguin Project for us has opened up a whole new world. I remember last year when we went to the informational meeting, my son did not even want to go and by the time we were leaving that meeting, he was saying, "Mom, I am so into this." This year he could not wait for it to start again. The people involved with production focus on what strengths the children are blessed with. They have to work as a team to make it all come together - all of them. They encourage each other! The parents get to cheer their kids on in something so positive and still have a network of people that truly understand the challenges they face everyday or are willing to learn about those challenges. And the group has fun together - differently-abled kids as well as their mentors. We thank God for The Whole Production Team for being willing to see the talents in our kids and encouraging them to use them to build a special part in each of our kids where they are each special but not because of their challenges.

Carol Hall said...

Here's a great comment from a parent who wanted to remain anonymous:

As a parent of a child with disabilities Penguin Project does wonders. It allows all kids to be accepted for who they are and not be looked down on. It allows them to be who they are. The penguin project allows these kids to participate in activities just like other kids by allowing them to have a mentor to help them and become artists and enjoy doing it.
Thanks to Dr. Morgan this program is growing by leaps and bounds and allowing so many kids to be just like everyone else.

Thanks to Penguins everywhere and keep your heads up said...

Here's another great comment about the Penguin Project from an anonymous parent:

The Penguin Project is Fantastic!. My daughter is autistic and was an artist in this years production. As her little sister has gotten older and started participating in things like soccer, choir, and camp, she has felt very left out. Opening night she GLOWED from the special attention and sense of accomplishment the performance gave her. said...

Maureen Pantages sent me this via email:
I am writing this as the parent of a mentor in the
Penguin Project. Dr. Morgan and his wife Kathy have
worked so hard to help kids with disabilites become
"stars"! My daughter has been involved since the
beginning, and has now been a part of four shows. The
Penguins she has worked with have had disabilities
such as delayed learning, visual disabilities, and
severe cerebal palsey. The self-esteem and confidence
they have gained is astonishing. I've been able to
observe most of the rehearsals for each production.
Some of the children would hardly talk to each other
at first and are now bellowing out songs and dancing
in front of thousands of people. They can't get
My daughter's best friend are from the Penguin
Project, and have disabilities such as visually
impaired and Asperger's Syndrome. Two girls, in
particular, are the same age as my daughter. She has
learned that these girls are "normal" teenagers with
thoughts, ideas, and feelings, just like her. They
just have to adapt to everyday situations in a
different way. Both of these girls have gone from
very shy and withdrawn to becoming main characters in
the shows. They have gained the confidence to
participate in other activities at their schools and
excelled in choir, drama, Scholastic Bowl, etc. with
their "normal" classmates. I believe the Penguin
Project was a main reason for their success.
My daughter has also gained so much, as she now wants
to go have a career working with kids with special
needs, such as being an Occupational Therapist. I
don't believe she would have even thought of anything
like this before the Penguin Project. She received
many compliments from the parents of her "Penguin"
this, saying it was the first time she was able to
relax and enjoy the show because her son was being
taken care of by someone that truly cared for him.
This is what makes the Penguin Project so special. It
brings so many families together, as they all get
together throughout the year, not just when they are
rehearsing for a show.

Anonymous said...

Penguins - birds with a disability as they cannot fly. Penguin Project - children, teens and young adults with special needs that soar! My daughter has been involved with the Penguin Project from day one...all four magical productions. When the first gathering was called four years ago by Dr. Andrew Morgan and Kathy Chitwood no one had any idea of what this Penguin Project was going to evolve into. Dr. Morgan, the developmental pediatrician that many families met at the time their child was diagnosed with a special need, and Kathy Chitwood, Executive Director of Eastlight Theatre. What in the world would/could that combination do for our children? Well...after many long practice hours, Annie Jr. came to opening night. A metamorphosis had occurred within our children! Dr. Andy, his wife Kathy, and Kathy Chitwood had our "penguins" soaring! The tears of joy flowed as we saw our children performing with their peer mentors on stage. Incredible talents emerged, friendships were formed for lifetimes, parents bonded, emotions were shared. The increased self-esteem, improved self-image, independence, and hidden talents have emerged in our children. My daughter met her two best friends at that first penguin production; they will grow old together, I know. We owe a debt of gratitude to Andy and Kathy Morgan for bringing this into our lives and for being so very committed and dedicated to our children. They have changed so many lives, and will continue to change many more!
Margaret Swanson, mom to Abby
aka Gabriella

Liz's Mom said...

Hello Jen:

My name is Joan Rice and I would like to add that the Penguin Project is an awesome venue that I only wish the schools in general could adapt into their respective curriculums. This is our daughter, Liz's, second year as a Penguin, and she loved every minute of her experience. Because she has been fully included in social venues and coursework, she has enjoyed many opportunities along life's journey. Perhaps this one is unique in its celebration of the human spirit --- it focuses on what each and every kid with a disability CAN DO and ACCOMPLISH...not on what diminishes them --- their clinical label, as the schools tend to imprint upon them. When it is all said and done kids are kids with strengths and talents inherent in their being - Dr. Andy is the "Life Coach" who brings it out front and center. If every parent could steal a bit of Dr. Andy's thunder, the area would be populated with energetic little children strutting their best stuff first, and the "disability" a dim shadow behind 'em. It is all in the strong belief coupled w/high expectation. Dr. Andy, and Miss Kathy, his wife ROCK!
Joan Rice said...

I got this great comment via email:

Hi Jen, I’d first like to thank you for your interest in the Penguin Project. This was our first experience and it was fabulous! My daughter, Michelle, has a rare blood disease that effects everything from Neurological skills, Immune system, muscle control and more. Her brother had the same disease, but passed away 6 yrs ago at the age of 14. Michelle is now 16 yrs. Old. We moved to Illinois 2 years ago and this is all we heard about from families with special need children. Dr. Morgan and his wife, Kathy are truly gifts from God. I can say the same about his staff and especially, Kim Holdham who did the choreography. My daughter played a ‘Brainiac” in the musical High School. Although we practiced for almost 5 months, It was well worth it. For us personally, this may be a once in a lifetime experience for our precious daughter. Her life expectancy is not good. We had family come in from 2 states to see her and it meant so much to her. She was treated like a real actress! Our house was covered in flowers. I know Dr. Andy would love to see this open up to other children around the world and you could help make that happen. Thank you so much for your time. Sincerely, Linda Tudor said...

Another great comment from a Penguin parent:

We were new-comers to the Penguin Project this year and it was great fun for both Jared and me.
Jared has Down Syndrome, and the opportunity to be with peers in social settings and especially to be a part of a "team" is seldom. He's learned so much from this experience. I think I've learned as much or more, watching him react to the expectations regarding behavior, cooperation, participation in learning dance steps and songs, interacting with peers and listening to a mentor rather than mom. I'm amazed at the level of patience and understanding that Dr. Andy, Kathy, Miss Kim and young mentors maintained during the entire process. Their passion and energy for a successful musical was so contagious I don't think the penguins even realized they were working, it just seemed like so much fun. I guess the most important benefit he received from this is self esteem and confidence. It is the chance of a lifetime for many of our kids to perform on stage with peers in front of an audience that loves them.
Beth Janovetz

Anonymous said...

First of all I would like to thank Dr. Morgan and his wife Kathy for bringing this wonderful program to life. My nephew, Nicholas, has been in the program from the beginning and I can tell what an amazing experience it has been for him and am so very proud of him. But I can also tell as the years have gone by how much it has done for so many more of the cast members. The ones that would hardly look at you in the beginning have now blossomed into such bright young stars with so much confidence in themselves. It truly warms my heart to see what this program has done for each and everyone of these kids. I can hardly wait each year to see them perform and how far they have come. I also do not want to leave out the kids that are mentors. They do such an incredible job with the kids and so appreciated. I can only hope that the Penguin Project will continue to show what talents these special kids have for many years to come.


Erica Reinhart said...

I personally was not involved in the Penguin Project but I did see the production a few weeks ago. As a dancer for over 19 years, I have first-hand knowledge of how the arts can facilitate a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem like nothing else. I'm also majoring in special education at Illinois State and have experience in working with children who have special needs, so I understand how a child who has a disability can flourish if given the opportunity to do so. I recognized several of the kids who were involved in the production, and I felt so proud of all that they had achieved and how they had grown by leaps and bounds. I feel so inspired by what this program does - focus on a child's strengths and celebrating them instead of dwelling on their weaknesses. Bravo to you, Dr. Andy and the rest of the Penguin Project crew!

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