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When Wendy Durant enrolled her 12-year-old daughter, Cadi, in the Community Theatre League’s newly founded chapter of the Penguin Project — a nationwide effort to empower young people with special needs through theatre — she wasn’t sure what to expect. The program, implemented at the local theater in 2016, seemed like a possible way to coax the painfully shy Cadi out of her shell.

Five years later, Cadi hasn’t just peeked her head out of that shell — she’s  burst out — dancing and singing.

“Every time I see her perform on stage, my heart swells,” Wendy said, smiling. “I’m so proud of how far she’s come and what she can do when she puts her mind to it.”

From the beginning

From a young age, Wendy knew that Cadi was different. While she was well familiar with Cadi’s sweet, silly personality, teachers said that, in the classroom, Cadi stuck by herself, quiet and withdrawn. Soon after, she received a string of diagnoses, including Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and anxiety. All three made connecting and socializing with her peers difficult.

“She wouldn’t volunteer a lot of information. She would keep to herself a little bit on the playground … like she had a couple friends, but not too (many).”

But at home, Cadi had a creative side. She loved to sing and had been taking dance lessons since the second grade. The Penguin Project, which involves members (called “Penguins”) working with peer mentors over a six-month span to put on a full-fledged performance, would allow Cadi to share her talents with others. After securing the comedic role of the Genie in the project’s first show — Aladdin Jr. — the once-timid girl’s confidence started to soar.

“One day, they finally had some rehearsals down in the basement rehearsal room, so I was able to see a little bit of rehearsal,” Wendy recalled. “And Cadi did the song ‘Friend Like Me.’ There she was in front of all these people, singing and dancing. She knew all her lines, and she was funny. I was just like, ‘Who is this child?!’ I was in tears.”

The Penguin Project

Five years and a handful of musicals later — including Aladdin Jr., Beauty and the Beast Jr.The Jungle Book Jr., and a concert version of Annie Jr. — the Penguin Project at CTL is still going strong. Young people with developmental disabilities (ages 11-21) participate as Penguins, while kids without disabilities (ages 10-18) can sign up to be peer mentors. In a typical year, there are about 30 people in each group.

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