LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - A lion and his best friends are quietly changing the lives of dozens of local children.

A new after-school program will show off the impact it has had when its students perform “The Lion King” next week.

Almost 100 young wannabe lions, warthogs, and meerkats spend their afternoons at Saint Mark Baptist Church in Program IMPACT, an after-school program that is completing its first year.

“It’s really fun,” said Mariah Palmer, a third grade student at Franklin Elementary School. “We really do, like, a lot of creative things here.”

Program IMPACT is focused on helping children achieve in literacy, math, and the arts, in addition to providing them a space to play.

“Oftentimes, our students are products of their environment,” explained Sheila Hayes, director of education services for Tendaji Community Development Corporation, which runs the program. “When you bring them into a different environment, when you introduce different things to them, academically as well as behaviorally, when we introduce the arts to our students, then we are creating a different environment for our students.”

For the last three months, the children have discovered the environment of the savannah as they rehearsed for “The Lion King.”

“First, we were just learning our parts,” recalled Anthony Brown, a second grade student at Williams Elementary, “then we start singing them, then we start doing it without the books, learning the motions, learning the songs, learning the motions to the songs, and then doing all of that without the books.”

From learning their lines, to designing the sets, playing the instruments, and building their own costumes, the kids have worked on all facets of the production, though their learning extends far beyond the script.

“I learned that you have to be yourself,” Palmer said. “Use what you know.”

“We have watched our children grow,” Hayes stated. “A lot of our students, when they came in, they had deficiencies in several areas, reading being one of the top areas.”

The instructors discovered how big a problem reading would be when they introduced the concept of performing the musical. Theresa Timmons, executive director of the Timmons Arts Foundation and the play’s director, said several children seemed disinterested at first. She realized that they could not read well enough to understand their lines.

“So, once we began to work with them, teach them, and tutor them a little more,” Timmons said, “they became, they learned their lines and they became excited about the play.”

Both Palmer and Brown said learning their lines was tough. Palmer said she didn’t know many of the words when she got the part of Timon, while Brown needed time to figure out how to play Scar.

“Because I practice kind of like getting my voice to the point where it sounds kind of evil,” he explained, “like Scar’s voice.”

Timmons said one of the benefits of an after-school program like Program IMPACT is to give parents a chance to get more involved than they could during school hours. She said many have helped run lines for their children to get them ready.

“So many parents are working long hours, and not able to really spend one-on-one time. This is really challenging parents, and having them step up to the plate and spend time with their kids,” Timmons said.

Program IMPACT worked with elementary students this year, but it plans to add take middle schoolers next year.

Their performance will be Thursday, May 11, at 6:30 p.m. at Saint Mark Baptist Church