Penguin Project plays give kids with special needs their time to shine

Brandon Gladfelter and T.J. Williams rehearse with Chad-Alan Carr at Gettysburg Community Theatre for an upcoming Penguin Project performance. (Our York Media)

The boy with the 130 IQ stood on stage for only a moment, others singing and performing around him. As the sound grew, he bolted down the aisle and ran out the auditorium doors.

He stood outside, four years ago, hands pressed over his ears.

This is T.J. Williams, who’s diagnosed with autism with sensory process disorder. He’s also an actor, and his work is featured in York County. And it’s thanks to funding from the Cultural Alliance of York County that T.J. and dozens of other performers find their voice on the stage, despite the hurdles they face.

Mostly, though, T.J. is an 11-year-old who looks at labels and sees the truth too many miss: labels are irrelevant.

“Some kids are told they’ll never be able to do anything special because of the way they are,” he says. “This is a way to show the world we can do anything.”

‘Right there next to me’

Four years ago, Brandon Gladfelter came to the Penguin Project, a program that pairs special-needs students with mentors to put on a play. He found T.J. the first day.

Today, they’re just two actors, awaiting a new show this spring. But Brandon still remembers their first performance: the curtain went up and T.J. wasn’t there. Brandon stepped in to perform for his new friend, worried. Soon enough, though, T.J. was back.

“He was right there next to me,” Brandon says, “and he took over from there.”

Spotlight on hope

On the opening night of T.J.’s first show, a cast member told him to break a leg. That’s why he wasn’t on stage. That’s why Brandon had to perform. T.J. was scared his leg would be hurt.

But perseverance can outlast fear and worry. And the stage was set for redemption.

One year later a young actor walked with purpose back into the spotlight to perform High School Musical. His only wish, he recalled, was to inspire others.

The audience waited for his line. Family leaned forward in their chairs.

“Break a leg,” T.J. said to the crowd, and to anyone else brave enough to chase a dream.

If you go: The next Penguin Project performance is “The Wizard of Oz” Nov. 16, 17 and 18 at The Eichelberger Performing Arts Center in Hanover. Tickets are $12. More information can be found at

Story paid for by the Cultural Alliance of York County

 Call: 717-812-9255

 Address: 14 W. Market St., York, PA 17401

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