Wednesday night, Nov. 2, was an extraordinary one for many people at the Putnam Museum’s Giant Screen Theater.

Over four years from filming to premiere, a packed theater was treated to the touching, insightful, completely heartwarming and inspirational documentary, “I Am Able.”

The new documentary will be shown at the Putnam Giant Screen Theater through Nov. 13.

The film — produced by Augustana College-based Fresh Films and directed by Estlin Feigley — follows the journey of nine Quad Citizens with special needs as they prepare and perform in a musical at Augustana Brunner Theatre Center in February 2019. As these young artists take center stage, the spotlight shines on their abilities and reveals similarities to all of us.

Through a story of challenges and triumphs, this humane, compassionate documentary seeks to ignite conversations about inclusion and action and encourages thoughtful conversations about what it means to destigmatize disabilities.

“Fresh Films has done an amazing job of framing this message,” Molly Roland of John Deere said shortly before “I Am Able” was shown on the giant screen. Screenings through Nov. 13 are being presented by Moline-based Deere.

Hannah Rath, one of the film’s stars, has bipolar disorder, loves to sing and has an infectious smile.

“We’re thrilled to help bring this documentary to the Quad Cities,” said Nate Clark, president of the John Deere Foundation. “Sparking conversations about inclusivity and celebrating the incredible people we have right here in the Quad Cities is something we are truly excited about.”

“I hope the message ripples throughout community and society as a whole,” Roland said Wednesday night. “I hope the message it gives is — if given the chance to shine, all of us can do amazing things.”

“There is an amazing transformation that occurs when people not only feel included but feel truly accepted,” said Rachael Damm, project manager and co-chair for QC ABLEd.

Her daughter, Halea Damm, 17, is featured in the film. Fourteen budding QC filmmakers assisted in the production of the movie.

Penguin Project directors Dino and Tina Hayz (seated in front), with Augustana’s Jeff Coussens and other participants at the Putnam premiere Nov. 2, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The Fresh Films crew filmed the documentary over 12 months — meeting with the artists and their families as the artists staged the musical “Seussical” — under direction of Dino and Tina Hayz of Rock Island’s Center for Living Arts, as part of the Penguin Project of the Quad Cities’ annual theater production.

Special needs artists paired with mentors

The QC Penguin Project (part of a nationwide effort) each year performs a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical. Dino Hayz is a gentle, patient, inspiring presence as he guides the performers.

All the roles are filled by young artists with developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other neurological disorders, according to the Penguin Project website.

They are joined in rehearsals and on stage by a dedicated group of “peer mentors” – children the same age without disabilities who have volunteered to work side-by-side with them through four months of rehearsals and through the final performance.

Some of the special needs artists featured in “I Am Able” on the red carpet before the Wednesday premiere, Nov. 2. 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Maddie Wright, 23, of Davenport is one of the nine artists highlighted in “I Am Able.”

“To tell the truth, it impacted my life in a way I didn’t expect,” she said. ” ‘I Am Able,’ that film, I just want to give out the message of different abilities. Do not judge at all until you meet someone.”

From not walking to soaring

Maddie is mildly mentally handicapped, since she was born with a lack of oxygen to the brain. She has a twin brother Justin (who’s two minutes older), and they experienced twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, her mother Kari said.

Very early in life, Maddie didn’t walk until she was 2, and went through occupational, physical and speech therapy for years.

Maddie Wright, left, with her mom Kari before the premiere at the Putnam Nov. 2, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We had a doctor that said she would never walk, Kari said. “I said, you never want to say that to a kid.” Maddie was bullied a lot in school.

Now she works at Hand in Hand in Bettendorf, which empowers children and adults of all abilities to learn and grow by providing inclusive programs and supporting families. Maddie works with the kids, does office work, and helps with the summer camp.

She loves Penguin Project most in seeing directors Dino and Tina Hayz, and working with her mentor. In “Seussical,” Maddie played Mayzie La Bird, Horton’s vivacious, self-centered, generous, and fun-loving bird neighbor.

“It was awesome,” Maddie said Wednesday. “It helps my confidence.”

“I’ve seen her blossom and grow so much,” her mom Kari said. “This was a girl who didn’t have any singing experience or acting experience. She went out there, took it on. There were some frustrating times.”

Penguin Project artists and friends pose for a photo at Wednesday night’s premiere (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“She took it on, and she’s grown and blossomed and shined,” her mom said. In the documentary (which interviewed all the families), Kari said that Maddie “teaches us empathy, perseverance, strength, forgiveness, happiness. She can’t stay mad to save her life.”

By seeing the new film, Kari hopes people “just open up their minds, and start realizing the abilities they have, and stop seeing the disabilities so much. Reach out in their communities to open doors, more like the Penguin Project.”

“They have abilities,” she said, noting the families got to see “I Am Able” first in August.

“It’s very good,” Kari said before Wednesday night’s showing. “It’s a lot to take in. I’m looking forward to watching it again.”

Fulfilling a dream the family mentioned in the film, Maddie two and a half years ago moved into a home with three other special-needs residents, where they have full-time caretakers (24/7), who also provide transportation.

“They are living as independently as possible, which is what her dad and I always wanted,” Kari said. The home is run by Hills & Dales, based in Dubuque.

Her last Penguin Project show was “The Little Mermaid,” last winter, when Maddie played Ursula. “Seussical” was her first show in 2019. Maddie’s fourth show is coming up in January, “High School Musical,” when she will play the drama club teacher.

A scene from the Penguin Project’s “Seussical” at Brunner Theatre, Rock Island.

The other eight local artists in this beautiful documentary are Sarah Couglin, Halea Damm, Grant Polzin, Alyssa Quinones, Hannah Rath, Deane Thomas, Abigail Ziolkowski, and Elizabeth Ziolkowski. We truly get to know and care about each one, and seeing them in person at the theater after the movie was like spying celebrities.

It’s super fitting that some of the “Seussical” lines echo the Penguin Project message — “Anything is possible”; “One small voice in the universe who believes in me”; “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

These special young people deserve endless praise for not only overcoming overwhelming obstacles in their lives, but in mustering up the courage and persistence to perform in public, literally putting on a show (“Seussical” sold out Brunner for all six performances).

In “I Am Able,” Alyssa has trouble walking, has a tumor behind her right eye, and we see her undergoing tests in Iowa City. When asked what she likes about Penguin Project, she said: “It makes me happy and I get excited. It makes me feel joyful…They are my family and friends. They always protect me.”

The Penguin Project production of “Seussical” at Augustana’s Brunner Theatre in February 2019.

Every Penguin performance ends with a singalong of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and at the Putnam premiere, the lights came up at that point and several people stood up to join in or clap along. It was a sight for sore eyes, and like the film itself, something I’ll never forget.

Upcoming benefits

“I Am Able” tickets are $10 — available HERE — and each 6:30 p.m. screening benefits and celebrates a QC nonprofit organization. The dates and groups are:

  • Nov. 3 — Handicapped Development Center
  • Nov. 4 — Penguin Project of the Quad Cities
  • Nov. 5 — Special Olympics Scott County
  • Nov. 6 — Penguin Project of the Quad Cities (also Augustana night)
  • Nov. 10 — The Arc of the Quad Cities and Kiwanis Aktion Club
  • Nov. 11 — Hand in Hand
  • Nov. 12 — GiGi’s Playhouse Quad Cities
  • Nov. 13 — NAMI and The Gray Matters Collective

They plan to have the film available on a streaming platform in 2023. To see a trailer for “I Am Able,” click HERE.