Penguin Project raises the curtain on what special needs students can do

Students perform at Lakeview Middle School as part of The Penguin Project. (WWMT/Ray Hole)

Children with special needs will be stars of a first-ever theater production at Lakeview Middle School.

It’s a first because it's a new type of drama program, part of a national initiative called The Penguin Project, and organizers are looking for volunteers across Calhoun County to participate.

“It was kind of a logical next step for us to have a program or a production that's truly highlighting this community that's often overlooked,” said Mark Switzer, the assistant program coordinator for the project.

So, this summer, the curtain will rise on a Lakeview Middle School production of “Annie Jr.” -- with every single role played by a student with special needs.

Lakeview senior Gwen Trautman, the assistant director for the production, has been involved with theater for years, but she thinks her greatest show is yet to come.

“I'm most excited to learn what these kids can teach me,” Trautman said. “I feel like there's so much opportunity for me to grow as a person.”

Lakeview is the first school district in Michigan to take on the Penguin Project challenge. The cast will include students ages 8 to 21, all with special needs.

“I feel like kids with special needs don’t always get the chance to shine and show how much they have to offer,” Trautman said. “So this kind of project gives them the opportunity to show just how wonderful they are.”

Each "penguin" will be paired with a mentor who walks side-by-side with them through rehearsals and performances. The practice builds relationships, as they encourage one another.

“During the show, they help them with lines, they help them with songs. If they forget where to go, they'll move them to that spot,” Trautman said.

Lakeview junior Kylie Ohrt, who directed the first Penguin Project production at the school, said she knows the benefits.

“When I first started theater, I barely talked. I didn't talk at all actually,” Ohrt said. “And now I can't stop talking.”

Orht said the program -- and the students -- are an inspiration to everyone involved.

“I see the mentors learning more than the actual kids on stage,” she said. And, “those in the audience will be blown away by the talent these students have inside of them.”

Lakeview Middle School theater director Deanna Flora said the community will be blown away by what these students can do.

“Unfortunately, society had told these kids that they can’t do or they shouldn’t do; and we're here to show them you can and you will and you're going to be amazing,” Flora said.

Auditions for the production aren't until March, but Flora wants families to start thinking about it now, and to encourage their children to take a leap of faith.

“We need to embrace everybody, because you don't know who's going to be your next star,” Flora said.

The Penguin Project at Lakeview is looking for people to be mentors to the students as well as students for the production. For more information, contact Deanna Flora at or Mark Switzer at

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