A very special film about people with special needs will premiere at Davenport’s Putnam Museum in an invitation-only, red-carpet screening Wednesday, Nov. 2.

Then, the general public can see the film “I Am Able” Nov. 3-13 at Putnam Museum & Science Center, 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport, thanks to a grant from the John Deere Foundation. Tickets for each night’s 6:30 p.m. showing are available HERE. Half of the ticket sales will benefit local nonprofit organizations, including The Arc of the Quad Cities, NAMI, Gigi’s Playhouse, Penguin Project of the Quad Cities and others.

“I Am Able” will have a red-carpet premiere at the Putnam Giant Screen Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

The film follows the journey of nine Quad Citizens with special needs as they perform in a musical at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center. As these young artists take center stage, the spotlight shines on their abilities and similarities to all of us, according to a release from Augustana-based Fresh Films.

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

“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, which was produced by Fresh Films.

Filmed over a year

The crew filmed the documentary over 12 months — meeting with the artists and their families as the artists staged the musical “Seussical” in February 2019, as part of the Penguin Project of the Quad Cities’ annual theater production.

A Penguin Project student featured in the film.

Maddie Wright, a featured artist in the documentary, shared what it was like to be in the project: “To tell the truth, it impacted my life in a way I didn’t expect. ‘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.”

The QC Penguin Project (part of a nationwide effort) is coordinated through the Rock Island-based Center for Living Arts. Each year, the students perform a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical.

These productions are unique, however, because 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.

Performers on stage in the Penguin Project of the Quad Cities’ production of “Seussical” in February 2019.

They are joined 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. By providing access to community theater, The Penguin Project demonstrates that the special challenges of a disability should not handicap a child’s ability to participate in life’s experiences.

A red-carpet premiere

The “I Am Able” red-carpet premiere event takes place on Nov. 2nd at the Putnam Museum Giant Screen Theater for the featured artists, their families, and guests from across the QC.

The artists will walk the red carpet starting at 6:30 p.m., with the film and awards running 7 to 9 p.m.

“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.

“We hope people can use this documentary to have conversations in their own families and use this film to reflect and then take action in their communities,” he said.

A scene from the February 2019 production of “Seussical” at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center.

There will be a special opportunity for some QC middle and high schools. Thought-leaders from Fresh Films and John Deere will be bringing the film to select schools this winter to showcase in grade-level or school-wide assemblies free of charge.

The assembly will start conversations about inclusion and understanding. Students will gain a new perspective on inclusion and acceptance of others and schools will be equipped to continue these valuable conversations.

Teachers and administrators who are interested in hosting this event should apply by November 1st at the Fresh Films website. At least four schools will be chosen for screenings this winter.

In Fresh Films productions, students get hands-on experiences working every job involved in video production.

“This film emphasizes that a disability or mental illness is just one singular aspect of someone and it’s up to all of us to see beyond that,” said Caralee Rath, mother of one of the film’s stars.

The nine local artists in the documentary are Sarah Couglin, Halea Damm, Grant Polzin, Alyssa Quinones, Hannah Rath, Deane Thomas, Maddie Wright, Abigail Ziolkowski, and Elizabeth Ziolkowski.

Reaction from Center director

Dino Hayz, creative director and co-owner of Center for Living Arts, has directed QC Penguin Project shows with his wife Tina since 2016. On Thursday, he called this “the single most fulfilling task we’ve ever taken on. Working and creating living art with these special performers has broken our hearts wide open in the absolute best way.”

“The greatest benefit I’ve seen have had to do with confidence in themselves and a strong community,” Hayz said by e-mail. “The process really enhances the understanding that people with special needs are PEOPLE with special needs. Watching the artists respond to all the positivity from their new community is beautifully heartbreaking. Watching the mentors, many who are performers themselves, take a backseat to allow others to shine is breathtaking. Both benefit tremendously from the process.”

The “I Am Able” film “garners the empathy of the audience by displaying the incredible struggles that some of the Penguin families deal with on a daily basis,” he said. “It also demonstrates how excited these families are to be a part of the wonderful community of the Penguin Project.”

The movie takes a deep dive into several families’ lives and helps the audience understand that people with special needs are just people with hopes, struggles and dreams, just like the rest of us (without special needs), Hayz added.

“When we see how similar we all are, it can’t but help us to grow in understanding and compassion.”

Proceeds for other nonprofits

“I Am Able” tickets are $10 and each 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

To see a trailer for “I Am Able,” click HERE.