Special needs students in Belton work with mentors to perform ‘Annie Jr.’ musical

Published: May. 4, 2023 at 8:16 PM CDT
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BELTON, Texas (KWTX) - Special needs students across one area district are shining bright on the stage alongside student mentors thanks to a unique partnership between Belton ISD, and a national nonprofit.

The district collaborated with The Penguin Project, a national organization that empowers children with special needs through theatre, to put on the musical “Annie Jr.”

Nearly 50 Belton ISD students, ranging in age from 2nd grade to 18 years, with half having special needs, practiced and performed the 90-minute show under the direction of Allison Ware, the theatre director at North Belton Middle School.

“Musicals are my personal favorite, and I have a heart for students with special needs,” Ware said. “So, when I learned about this opportunity, I knew in my bones that this was something I was called to do.”

The special needs students who participated have conditions from Down syndrome to neurological disorders and autism.

Some of the students were actors while others who were nonverbal participated in supporting roles like sound effects.

The special needs students were paired up with student mentors from the district to help them every step of the way.

“They dressed alike.  They were on stage together.  They both kind of did the part, however, our actors with special needs, they were the ones who had microphones.   It was them who delivered all the lines,” Ware said.  “Sometimes, they needed a little prompting but other than that the actors did it all.”

The students began meeting in January, and practicing multiple times a week.

Ware said watching the students of all different abilities and backgrounds come together to perform was special.

“Being a part of the Penguin Project was transformational,” Ware said.   “Not only did it bring joy to me, but it brought joy to everyone involved, and the worst day in my classroom turned to magic as soon as I got to rehearsal.”

The students prepared for three performances at Belton High School’s Performing Arts Center, but one was canceled due to the weather.

The actors and staff were met with roaring applauses from those who attend.

Ware said she’s already looking to choose a performance for next year and is hoping to find a way to get the students together soon as they’ve formed close bonds over the past few months.

“They’re already telling me how much they miss each other,” she said.

“The pure joy I have witnessed and have been part of is indescribable.  It has truly been life-changing. Not only am I learning as an educator and director, but I am also reaping so many benefits. The families that have committed to this project are so selfless and giving. This has filled my cup.”