05/17/2012 11:46 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Real Life Lessons From Real Life DoGooders: Independence Breeds Empowerment

I remember vividly my fifth grade book report. The assignment: read a novel and create a replica of the scene that was integral to shaping the narrative. My scene depiction, in an old shoe box, was not only pitiful compared to the others' artistic clay creations and paper mache structures, but also highly inappropriate. My mom was not the kind of mother who helped me brainstorm concepts, gather supplies and labor for hours on a project to create a masterpiece. In fact, there were times she didn't even review my work. She had an unspoken theory that I alone, and not her, was accountable for my work.

To some, this might have been a mistake, since my selected book was the John Grisham novel, The Client. I secretly watched the R-rated film adaptation without my mom's knowledge and claimed I had read the 600-page adult novel as a ten-year-old. I glued my toy car to the center of a shoe box with red string coming from the exhaust pipe of the driver's window to recreate a scene in which the protagonist, Mark Sway, witnesses a mob lawyer attempting to commit suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning. You will have to read the book (or watch the movie as I did) to see what happens, but this class project is one that my mom and I laugh about today. No telling what my teacher thought as I presented a suicide depiction to my fifth grade class while other depicted scenes from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

This continued "do-it-yourself" mentality continued into my high school years. While in boarding school, I would beg my mom to allow me to travel home to South Carolina from Virginia for a weekend escape. "Sure, you can come home, if you find a way to get there." Virtually penniless, I would take midnight greyhounds, suspect trains and even happily hitched a ride from a classmate's paraplegic aunt (a resourceful individual who drove with hand-controlled system).

Looking back, I wouldn't want it any other way because the "like it or not" independence that my mother gave me created a resourcefulness that has helped me immeasurably in adulthood. I didn't grow up depending on my mom to swoop in and fix things like so many of my friends did. After graduating, I watched friends struggle because they hadn't developed the work ethic to seize opportunities that allowed them to support themselves. Surprisingly, I still have friends pushing 30-years-old who still depend on their parents for supplemental income. My mother knew and showed me the real life lesson: independence breeds empowerment.

A former DoGooder Spotlight, Micaela Connery, shares this same value and incorporates it daily in her nonprofit, Unified Theater. Twenty-five year-old Connery developed Unified Theater as a freshman at her Connecticut high school. The program celebrates all students, especially those with physical and developmental disabilities, and brings them together as a community. Growing up, Connery played with her disabled cousin, Kelsey, and never liked it when outsiders treated her differently. Spurred from her personal love for drama and Kelsey's love for music, she founded Unified Theater as a club in her school cafeteria.

Connery saw theater production as an activity everyone could participate in to gain independence, no matter a person's circumstances. A Unified Theater production is completely student-run. The nonprofit offers training, curriculum and support to the group, but leaves the entire production up to the students. Students are responsible for everything from script, set design, costumes, casting, lighting to choreography.

Unified Theater's motto is that a disability isn't something that defines an individual -- it's something that is apart of who you are as much as any other characteristic. The nonprofit doesn't focus on the disability, but rather focuses on working hard as a team. The personal impacts are clear: 98 percent of participants agreed/strongly agreed that Unified Theater improved their self-confidence and 67 percent of student leaders said Unified Theater is their most significant leadership experience to date.

Unified Theater's methods prove that independence helps spark empowerment and confidence amongst its participants. Like my mother, Connery understood that when you foster independence in demonstrative acts, with real tangible rewards, it gives students the confidence to see what else they can achieve. While the groups involved with Unified Theater are centered on inclusion, every participant in the program is responsible for being a part of the creative process. This kind of free-form structure fosters collaboration and offers an equalizing effect no matter what each individual's circumstances might be.