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'Annie Jr.' to Feature Students with Special Needs Alongside Peer Mentors


A unique partnership in Belton ISD is featuring students with special needs performing on stage alongside student mentors. 

The district is collaborating with The Penguin Project, a national organization that empowers children with special needs through theatre, to present “Annie Jr.” at Belton High School’s Performing Arts Center.

Performances are at 7 p.m. on April 28-29 and at 2 p.m. on April 30. Tickets, which are $10 for adults and $5 for students in kindergarten-12th grade, are available at or at the door.

About 50 students from across Belton ISD are involved in the production.

“We are excited to partner with The Penguin Project to give students this unique learning experience through putting on a theatre production,” Jennifer Ramirez, executive director of special programs and Penguin Project coordinator, said. “Theatre is so valuable in developing social and communication skills and self-esteem. This program helps us share that experience — and benefits — with our special needs students.” 

Rehearsals began in January. After special needs students were cast in roles in early February, age-level peers were paired as understudies. These mentors learn all the lines, help the actors during rehearsals and will appear on stage with their partners, who do all the acting, singing and dancing. 

Allison Ware, the theatre director at North Belton Middle School, is the production’s director. 

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

Ware said audiences can look forward to 90 minutes of entertaining, live theatre.

“These students are well rehearsed, however, it is still live, so you can expect the unexpected,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

Ware said the production is a true collaboration across the district. 

Belton High School’s theatre program — directors Melissa Stuhff, Marie Phillips and Thespian Troupe 3491 — has assisted with costumes, props and building set pieces. Parent volunteers Jamie Lindsay and Becky Olsen also helped with costumes. Sarah Wong, a teacher at Pirtle Elementary, organized the student mentors. North Belton Middle School choir director Aleisha Martinez serves as the musical director, while South Belton Middle School teacher Shelby Cozart is the stage manager. Brianna Strnad, a teacher at NBMS, is the choreographer.

The Penguin Project founder Andy Morgan and Cran Dodds, the project director from the Corsicana Chapter, have also been essential to creating this production, Ware said. 

The veteran teacher calls directing “Annie Jr.” the most rewarding experience she’s had and is already looking forward to future Penguin Project partnerships.

“The pure joy I have witnessed and have been part of is indescribable,” Ware said. “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.”

April 19, 2023