Growing up, Micaela Connery spent much of her time with her cousin Kelsey, who has disabilities that affect her ability to walk and talk.
Kelsey was always right beside Connery at family outings, whether they were riding a roller coaster or enjoying a boat trip. So Connery couldn’t understand why the extracurricular activities at her high school in West Hartford, Connecticut—particularly the arts programs she dearly loved—weren’t more inclusive of students with disabilities.
Then during her sophomore year Connery failed to land a part in the school play. She created her own show, except hers brought together young people with different backgrounds. Presented in a small choir room with only 15 kids—some with special needs, some without—the production was a surprise hit.
“We just were expecting our parents and maybe a couple of teachers, but everyone from the district came,” says Connery, now 28. “The head of special education came up to me afterward and said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done here today. This is really going to grow.’”
Connery’s idea quickly turned into a full-fledged nonprofit called Unified Theater, which expanded to seven local schools by the time she graduated from high school in 2004. Since then, about 7,500 students have performed for 15,000 audience members in more than 80 schools across the country.
The group’s mission is simple: to give children of all abilities the opportunity to shine onstage. Unlike in traditional drama clubs, no one auditions for roles. Members take part equally, with no separation for those with physical or developmental limitations. The shows are student-run and student-written, allowing for original scripts that highlight what participants can do—rather than working around what they can’t. “There’s a clear tone of community and inclusion,” Connery says.
Unified Theater alumnus Michael Duff, 19, says the group is transformative. Before joining as a freshman at Connecticut’s Simsbury High School, Duff, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, says he kept mostly to himself. But he soon became a student leader, responsible for directing classmates and developing skits. He even traveled to schools in California to spread the theater’s message. He says Unified Theater was the first time he’d experienced a fully inclusive activity, one that eliminated the disability label. “They don’t just talk the talk; they also walk the walk,” he says.
At first, Connery had no plans to take Unified Theater national. She attended Fordham College at Lincoln Center for a year and worked briefly as a nanny before transferring to UVA. At the University, she designed her own major in service, community and social policy, and was co-chair of Madison House, an independent student volunteer organization near Grounds. It wasn’t until she began interviewing for consulting jobs that she realized she had the rare chance to make a bigger difference with her nonprofit.
Connery drew up a business plan and moved back in with her parents. She was Unified Theater’s sole employee for more than two years, waitressing at night to supplement her slim salary. In that time, she snagged a string of donors that included Starbucks. “My mom always jokes that I don’t hear the word ‘no,’” she says, laughing.
In 2010, Connery won an award from Do Something, a charity that encourages young people to effect social change. The recognition continued: She was a delegate at the 2012 International Paralympic Committee’s Global Inclusion Summit in London and was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. By last year, Unified Theater had spread its program to six states and grown to employ five staffers.
That’s when Connery felt ready for a new challenge. “I started to have other interests that I wanted to explore,” she says. “As a founder, you need to know when it’s time to let go.” Last July, Laura McLelland took over as CEO after working with Connery for months to ensure a smooth transition. McLelland says she’s awed by what her predecessor accomplished at such a young age, calling her “a born social entrepreneur.”
Connery serves as a Unified Theater consultant while pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She’s considering focusing on housing for those with disabilities. Whatever path she takes, Connery says she will always remember the person who inspired her to take action. “All the time, I say to Kelsey, ‘Thank you for giving me a purpose.’”