By Hilary Corna, 2003 Scholar | “Jake is talking to that girl,” the shocked mother of a Unified Theater student observes. “He never talks to people and hates crowds.”
Jake’s mother isn’t the first person to express amazement at what Unified Theater does for kids. Through the organization, Coca-Cola Scholar Micaela Connery (2004) and the student-leaders she works with help kids with disabilities and special needs like Jake develop their first friendships and become recognized as part of the community by their peers.
Unified Theater was born out of inspiration from Micaela’s cousin and childhood best friend, Kelsey. At age three, Kelsey lost the ability to walk and talk. Seeing how her beloved cousin was separated from the community as they grew older motivated Micaela to make a difference. “I never thought about inclusion before. Kelsey was always just a part of the family requiring a little bit of extra help,” she says.
While in the cafeteria at Conard High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, one day, Micaela decided to start Unified Theater, a student drama club led by and for students of all abilities. “Students with special needs brought so many diverse abilities to our community. I felt kids were missing out on life-altering relationships, like mine and Kelsey’s,” Micaela says.
While Micaela attended the University of Virginia, she continued to work with people wanting to start Unified Theater programs. Since August 2009, she has worked for the organization full-time.
Today, Unified Theater has facilitated relationships for more than 1500 students. Now recognized as a 501c3 nonprofit organization, it is expanding throughout Connecticut and into Rhode Island. Currently, there are programs in eleven schools.
In Unified Theater groups, shows are student-written and student-produced. It’s all about focusing on individual abilities, rather than competition among participants. Student-leaders are trained by Unified Theater to run the programs self-sufficiently. Teams of five leaders decide the theme for the show, and the student groups write skits and choreograph dances to the music. In Unified Theater, there are no auditions—and participants aren’t labeled as partners, helpers, or any other classification based on ability.
According to attendee feedback, 100 percent of students and parents involved with Unified Theater would recommend the program, while 77 percent of parents say being involved in Unified Theater has helped their child discover a new ability. “My kid has a new identity,” one mother says.
The effectiveness of the program is evident in the ten new groups already signed up to start Unified Theater in fall 2010. The organization’s goal by 2015, according to the Unified Theater website, is to create 325 new school groups, touching more than 42,000 students.
For her work with the organization, Micaela recently was awarded a $10,000 grant from DoSomething.org and VH1.
Now she is planning the first all-school student-leader training, which will be held in November 2010. Following the DoSomething awards, Unified Theater received AmeriCorps funding, and Micaela is now talking with college representatives about expanding programming beyond high school.
With more eyes watching Unified Theater, Micaela’s role has evolved. As the Executive Director, she mostly focuses on strategic planning for the organization. “We need to make the right decision, identifying the intention behind what we’re doing,” she says.
With so much success in such a short period of time, it appears that the intentions Micaela has set for Unified Theater are spot-on.
Undoubtedly, the students and families who have been positively affected by the work of Unified Theater would agree.
Hilary Corna, a 2003 Scholar who attended Whetstone High School in Columbus, Ohio, is a graduate of Elon University. She is an author and speaker on The Toyota Way and the cultural and business challenges of working in Asia. You can contact Hilary by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting her website.