- Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) - Parker Egbert’s autism kept him nonverbal until age 6.

But inside the Brewer Middle School eighth-grader was an aspiring star who not even his mother knew was there - one who finally got to shine in front of an audience of more than 300 when he starred as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks in “Annie Jr.” last month at the Greenwood Community Theatre.

“Since I was a kid, I said ‘Hey, I have an idea, I want to act in a play,’” said Parker, 14. “I went to the Penguin Project and then we got our scripts and we had to listen to our songs and in September we started out acting and I was really good.”

Known for their playful and curious personalities, penguins are flightless birds. They’ve learned to overcome that trait and adapt to their environment by becoming skilled swimmers, able to reach average speeds of 4 to 7 mph.

So when Andrew Morgan, a developmental pediatrician and former head of the Child Development Division at the University of Illinois-Peoria launched a performing arts program in 2003 to foster the creativity within children that have special needs, he named it for the aquatic bird.

In a three-day run last month, the GCT became the first venue in South Carolina to host a Penguin Project production, culminating a 16-month effort by Executive Director Stephen Gilbert.

Gilbert is known for not favoring any theater show over another, but said the Penguin Project has changed his mind.

“This is the best thing I will ever do at this theater. I don’t care if we ever do another play,” he said. “I really thought we would be teaching the kids and the mentors, and I never thought about how much they would be teaching us. It was more than I had ever dreamed of it being. Besides having kids, this was the best thing that I’ve ever done and the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Parker’s mother, Laura, said her son’s progression has been remarkable. In a speech she delivered to a packed house prior to one of the “Annie Jr.” shows, she described having to rely on a system of note cards and sign language to communicate.

“All I could focus on was what we’d lost. He wouldn’t be able to do this or that, ‘he couldn’t’ and ‘he can’t’ were words I just couldn’t get out of my mind,” Egbert told theatergoers. “We started to see glimmers of hope and one day at a time we began to limp along through this world of autism.”

The family immersed Parker in activities including Miracle League baseball and the Special Olympics, where the played tennis and swam.

“We decided to get him involved in the Penguin Project because it was more thing for him to try. We wanted him to have fun, maybe get a park and also to make some friends,” Egbert said.

On the calendar, it was a short journey. Rehearsals began in mid-May, and opening night was Sept. 15.

But Egbert - like other parents whose children were involved - had to do something impossible for it to happen.

“You need to know, we trust no one. When you’re a parent, you protect. And when you have a child with special needs, you protect 100 times more and you’re very mama bear. So to put them in something like this, up on a stage you think, ‘Will they be laughed at, will they run off the stage? Will they cry, will they have a meltdown?’ But you have to brave enough to let them try and we felt through the practices that it was a safe enough environment and the adventures we’ve been on through his life have seasoned us enough to try new things,” she said. “To earn the trust of a special needs parent takes a lot.”

But Gilbert and director Ansley Keenan, who teaches drama with the ACTS program at Brewer Middle School and is an adjunct faculty member at Lander University, did just that.

“I think some of them are used to people giving up on them, and so they expect that. So they came in full of ruckus, and we did not do that,” Keenan said of the 15-member cast. “It’s great to give them that outlet of art. I thought that I was doing important stuff by helping kids find a voice or helping them articulate themselves even with reading and math scores being tied into the arts, but it’s minimal compared to this.”

A core part of the Penguin Project is linking its cast members with age-level peer mentors who help them with stage direction, memorization of lines and morale. Parker’s companion was 13-year-old Dru Strickland.

They both attend Brewer Middle School, and Dru she saw Parker in passing before connecting with him through the arts. Their bond today is strong - Parker frequently reaches for her hand, and sits close to her when the two are together.

“Right when I started, I didn’t know what to expect but it was really cool because I’ve never had a big lead in a play before but Parker having a big lead was kind of like me having a big lead too. I never really participated in anything with special needs kids, and this really helped me learn to accept everyone for who they are,” Dru said.

Greenwood’s production of “Annie Jr.” through the Penguin Project put it on the radar of entities throughout the state that reached out to Gilbert - including the state Department of Education and officials from Charleston and Greenville.

“For us to be a leader in the state with this program, I’m very proud of that,” Gilbert said. “How brave the parents were to trust us and allow their children to participate. I had the idea of bringing it here, but it’s not because of me that it was successful.”

As a teacher, parent and actress, Keenan said being involved with the Penguin Project has been career opportunity.

“We stuck with them to do a good job and to perform. You have to approach each child differently because everybody has their own way of communicating, everybody has their own way of receiving things,” she said. “Different is everywhere.”

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Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com

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