ORU freshman ‘demonstrates the love of Christ’ through song and dance


ORU freshman Ellie Ransdell, left, with arms raised, sings and dances with her Penguin Project students at Tulsa’s Clark Youth Center.

Victoria Graham, Staff Writer

In late January, Oklahoma native Ellie Ransdell walked into Midtown Tulsa’s Clark Youth Theater nervous about mentoring her theater students. She had no knowledge of how the next few hours would go, but the Oral Roberts University freshman knew she wanted to help.


When they started dancing, the nervousness and intimidation disappeared as a group of young students taught her the choreography and songs. Joy replaced timidness, and a connection was born.


The Penguin Project, founded in Peoria, Illinois, in 2003, assists those who identify as differently abled or with special needs. The program is open to individuals 10 and up with any physical or invisible limitations.


Ransdell’s desire to help others with disabilities, both seen and unseen, stems from her understanding of what it’s like living with dyslexia. When presented with the opportunity this year to volunteer with Penguin Project, she immediately said yes.


“The Penguin Project helped me dive into something that I did not fully understand and caused me to be able to learn how to help others,Ransdell said.


The Penguin Project has reaffirmed her decision to come to ORU as a theater for healing major, Ransdell said. Working with the Penguin Project has inspired a vision for life after college.


Part of my calling is to help people heal and bring their hearts to Jesus through the arts,said Ransdell. “With my major, my dream is to create my own organization that demonstrates the love of Christ through every art form.


A few other ORU students who volunteer, like Ransdell, are called peer mentors. They receive hands-on experience by cultivating friendships with the artists and actors. Through the relationship, the theatre artists can learn choreography, enhance their acting skills and take part in a major production at the end of the season.


Norah Swiney, the program director for the Penguin Project and a professor of theater for healing major at ORU, has helped the nonprofit grow since it branched into Tulsa in 2014. She wants togive participants with special needs the opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and grow in communication skills, social skills and self-esteem.


The young actors at Penguin Project are aspiring artists who will have the opportunity to “have fun, make new friends, and put on a great show, in that order,” Swiney said. “You will never have this much fun or be so moved. Our penguins are amazing people.”


The Penguin Project has grown into a national program with more than 50 chapters. The Clark Youth Theatre has helped to create eight seasons for the Tulsa Penguin Project.


This April, in cooperation with the Clark Youth Center and the Penguin Project, the Penguin Project will produce the Newsies Jr. with both mentors and students as cast members.


“The atmosphere they create is very intentional and very special, and they don’t want the kids to be nervous,” said Ransdell. “An audition can be a pretty nerve-wracking thing and they created this very laid-back atmosphere. There was no judgement, no condemnation.”


One girl who was about to go up to act was extremely nervous. They all encouraged her and once she started, “she blew me away,” Ransdell said.


She was phenomenal, with the hand motions and singing. She was reaching her full potential on the stage. We all stood and applauded her. Even though she has some restrictions, it was paled in comparison to her natural talent.”


To volunteer for the upcoming shows on April 27-29, or to find more information about the program, visit penguinproject.org.