DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week.
“Kelsey is brave,” a 9-year-old Micaela Connery wrote about her friend and cousin. Born three months apart, Micaela and Kelsey grew up together, and though Kelsey lost the ability to walk and talk when she was three, Micaela adored her. As she got older, however, Micaela realized that kids like Kelsey were not always included in extracurricular activities. She decided to change that.
When she was not cast in her high school’s musical her sophomore year — a catastrophe for any self-proclaimed theater geek (Glee, anyone?) — Connery decided to use her extra time to start Unified Theater, a student-led drama club for individuals of all abilities, both disabled and not. Today, what started as 20 kids performing in her high school’s choir room has blossomed into a full-fledged 501c3 not-for-profit that has worked with hundreds of kids in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Connery, now 23, took home a $10,000 DoSomething award last week for her work with the organization.
There are now nine Unified Theater programs in 11 schools, including Connery’s alma mater, Conard High in West Hartford, Connecticut. Two hundred students took the crowded stage in the most recent Unified Theater production there. “It really grew organically,” Connery says humbly. “I think it can be really daunting when you see kids that have these huge organizations. For me, this started in my cafeteria, as simple as it could be. Anybody could do it.”
All Unified Theater productions are student-led, student-produced and student-written by middle school and high school students. A team of between two and six student leaders decides on the theme for the show, and then student groups write skits and choreograph dances to existing music. No one auditions, and anyone can have a line or a solo.
Tom Fiorentino met Connery through his 19-year-old son, Dan, who has Down syndrome and has participated in Unified Theater for five years. As a parent, Fiorentino sees the organization as his son’s gateway to the community.
Fiorentino, now the chair of Unified Theater’s board of directors, helped Connery rewrite the bylaws after she finished her degree in Service, Community and Social Policy at the University of Virginia in 2009. “She’s one of these people you meet very very infrequently,” Fiorentino says of Connery, who he describes as poised and striking. “This woman could be working anywhere. She’s got that kind of presence and self-confidence and making huge amounts of money. And instead, this is her passion. How cool is that?”
Since the DoSomething Awards, schools from across the country have contacted Connery about starting Unified Theater programs. Already, 10 confirmed new groups will be starting in the fall. The goal: to create 325 new groups and work with 40,000 students by 2015.
Each program needs a bare minimum of $1500-$2000 to launch and less to maintain each year. However, with so many new groups emerging, Unified Theater needs staff to support these programs. Currently, Connery is the only full-time staff member.
Connery plans to use her DoSomething grant to cover the costs of the first all-school student leader training this November. The organization also received a grant from AmeriCorps to develop Unified Theater as an AmeriCorps program. Connery is also talking with college representatives about expanding programming to the university level.
Even with big plans on the horizon, Connery remains focused on where she began. The night before the DoSomething Awards, Connery tweeted, “Perfect pre-#dsaward night spent with Kelsey. Puts it all in perspective – she’s blowing lots of kisses and stoked for tomorrow. Night LA!”
And accepting her award from American Idol‘s Randy Jackson, she turned to her inspiration. “Look at what you started Kelsey,” Connery said holding back tears. “You inspire me every day. Every day.”
[Photograph by Gabriela Herman]