Five Months in the Making—And Worth It!

Five months of dancing, singing, and rehearsing lines together creates a bond of friendship unique to the theater community. But when the cast is a mix of students facing intellectual and physical challenges and their typically developing peer mentors, the depth of those friendships is nothing short of extraordinary.

“When a child with special needs is fully accepted by others, their abilities blossom,” says Jenni Von Tobel, director of Willow’s Special Friends ministry. “And for eight years now, through eight musical productions, we’ve seen these kids blossom in ways that surprise even their parents. They grow in confidence and courage. They experience belonging and friendship. And the ripples of joy they leave on the rest of us are worth every minute invested.”

Plan to experience those ripples of joy firsthand at any weekend service this weekend, July 20/21, as Willow Creek’s Special Friends community presents Rodgers & Hammerstein’s well-loved musical Cinderella. Note: This service is a live-only event. Due to copyright limitations, streaming via or the Willow Creek YouTube channel is not permitted. This family-friendly production is free to all. No tickets required. Learn more.

The remarkable friendship of Grace, JP, and Anna
Artist/Mentor, Artist, and Mentor

Perhaps one of the most surprising things to those unfamiliar with a Special Friends production is the genuine friendships formed between the artists with special needs and their peer mentors. Case in point: Grace Hsieh, Anna Medrys, and JP McCarty.

In last year’s production, Mary Poppins, Grace played the title role—and she had a fantastic experience with her peer mentor. It inspired her. “This year I wanted to act again, but I also wanted to be a mentor to another artist. I wanted to help someone else out and teach them how to dance and sing songs.”

Grace got her wish. This year in Cinderella, Grace has a dual role as a Guest at the Ball as well as a Townsperson, and her peer mentor is Anna. Grace also serves as a mentor to JP, who has the same dual roles as her. “I get to help JP stand up when he wants to kneel down. We have a lot of fun together.”

For JP, his favorite part of Cinderella and the Special Friends ministry can be summed up in one word: “Friends!” He loves his new friends and loves working with Grace.

As for Anna, Grace’s peer mentor, this is her first Special Friends production, and she’s hooked. “I just love working with the artists. They’re so sweet, and they make everything a lot of fun. Everyone is so welcoming and so happy. It’s just a great environment to be around.”

Why should people come see Cinderella this weekend?

“Singing and dancing!” says JP.
Anna adds, “It’s just great to be around this group of friends.”
“It’s a great show!” Grace says. “We know our lines. We know our dance moves. Come see us shine!”

To learn more about Special Friends or to volunteer, click here.

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