HARTFORD — Saturday marked a new chapter for a high school musical program that showcases the work of students with special needs.
Unified Theater began in West Hartford 12 years ago and has since expanded across the country.
The fourth annual Spotlight Celebration on Saturday night at Bushnell Park also served as a send-off for Unified’s founder and CEO Micalea Connery, who will be heading to Harvard University for graduate school to pursue her aspirations in the area of public policy.
Connery began Unified Theater in 2002 as a 15-year-old Conard High School sophomore inspired by her cousin Kelsey, who was born with disabilities limiting her ability to walk and talk.
“We’ve gone from an annual budget of $4,000 to $500,000. We’ve gone from myself plunking away at the office to a team of five incredible women who lead us into the next phase of growth,” Connery said.
On Saturday night, students in the program from West Hartford’s Conard and Hall high schools performed during the event.
Unified Theater has grown from a single high school to more than 60 schools in six states, fueled by creativity, passion, and the generous support of foundations, corporations and private donors.
Unified Theater’s concept: Let teens lead, let creativity rule and put the spotlight on ability.
“This idea of inclusion is something I believe in so strongly, and wanted to do something about it. If I just started at my high school, it would have been enough for me, but it’s exciting to see the demand and growth and where it’s gone from there,” said Connery.
The theater group has made a difference in the lives of thousands across the U.S.
Matt Nelson, a Unified Theater alum from 2002 to 2008, was recognized Saturday night for all the performances he took part in over the last six years.
“I love doing theater. I love dancing. It’s just a part of my life,” Nelson said.
Unified Theater’s new C.E.O. will be Laura McLelland, who was formerly the organization’s chief program officer since October 2013.
McLelland says she plans to expand it to 100 schools in eight states by next year.
She says what these teens get out of performing makes it all worthwhile.
“We’ve seen so many of those experiences where young people start out maybe not completely comfortable, and by the end they end up front and center,” McLelland said.
Twenty middle and high schools in Greater Hartford alone take part in the program.