“This happens, I’m not kidding you, every day out in town: Somebody I don’t know comes up to me and just hugs me,” says Valerie Jensen, whose cinema, the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has won national attention for hiring dozens of individuals with disabilities. “And often crying, saying, ‘Thank you.’”
It’s easy to spot Jensen in a crowd. For one thing, she boasts an eye-catching head of hot-pink-colored hair. “I can’t commit crimes, I can’t cut people off, I can’t do all the things that I want to be able to do,” she jokes. For another, her profile has risen over the last several years thanks to attention from the likes of the New York Times and NBC Nightly News, the latter of which ran two different segments on the Prospector back in 2015.
More recently, Jensen became the subject of a documentary. Directed by Kevin Taherian, 25 Prospect Street follows the theater owner from the start-up phase through the first year of operation, in the process capturing a few “epic failures” (Jensen’s words) as she struggles to learn the ropes of running a cinema. “Now that we’re at year four and doing well, I guess I can look back and kinda laugh at it—as my hand is over my eyes watching the movie—because nobody likes to see themselves up on the screen,” she says. “Especially when they’re making mistakes.”
And yet Jensen has taken on a seemingly unprecedented challenge: operating a movie theater that also functions as a mecca of gainful employment for a segment of society that has historically suffered from abysmally low rates of employment. This isn’t hyperbole: according to the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment rate among Americans with disabilities last year was just 18.7 percent, compared with 65.7 percent for Americans without.
Jensen’s mission has worked out pretty well so far. Of the Prospector’s nearly 120 current employees, 70 percent live with a disability of some kind, ranging from Down syndrome to autism to debilitating mental illness. As a mark of Jensen’s belief in them, each is known not as an employee but as a “Prospect,” and opportunities are tailored to each person’s special set of skills.
Kristopher (“K-Mann”) Mann, whose way with numbers has made him a natural fit in the theater’s box office, has become a sort of unofficial spokesperson for Prospector employees. Noting that it was previously difficult for him to find work, Mann says the experience at Prospector gave him the confidence to take a second job at Ridgefield’s neighboring Planet Pizza restaurant.
“Working at the box office, it really makes me feel like I can do the same thing there,” says Mann, who has Down syndrome. “I’m always on the register, like I do here at the Prospector. It’s really cool. I [even] trained somebody there at Planet Pizza.”
There are countless challenges in running a four-screen movie theater employing over 100 people. Jensen notes that the Prospector’s business operations (ticket sales, concessions, theater rentals, etc.) only bring in about half the revenue needed to keep the theater running; the other half comes via charitable gifts, donations, and grants through its nonprofit status. That allows the Prospector to employ an unusually large number of people who might otherwise have difficulty making a living.
“We’ve seen many of our Prospects be able to move into their own apartment and pay bills and get off government assistance and get off food stamps,” she says. “Just the pride that they have being able to consider themselves a contributing member of society is so powerful. And it’s so important. And it’s something that I hope other businesses and other movie theaters see as a possibility.”
“Getting paychecks really is my favorite thing of all time,” adds Mann, whose wife also worked at the theater previously. “I like paychecks.”
Having grown up with a sister with Down syndrome, Jensen considers mission to be undeniably personal. In her younger days, she says, she would counter ignorance with a closed fist. “If I viewed people as disrespecting Hope, I’d punch them in the f–ing head,” she says. “That’s what my parents taught me to do! And that’s what I thought was right. But over time, much to my chagrin, I actually did realize that education was a lot more valuable than punching.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Prospector is the sheer diversity of opportunities it offers employees. In addition to the typical theater positions (usher, box office, concessions, etc.), on-site jobs include landscaping and gardening. The theater even utilizes the talents of its staff in creating pre-show content, including music videos that lay down theater rules and direct customers to the concessions stand. “We even have an accessible technologies rap,” says Jensen (the theater offers a range of such technologies, including closed-captioning glasses for the hearing impaired and headphones for those with impaired vision). “I mean, you show me another movie theater that’s got an accessible technology rap music video.”
The Prospector’s charitable mission certainly draws customers, but it’s the theater’s cleanliness and handsome aesthetics (the building is a renovated movie palace that previously housed a bank) that keep them coming back. Of the space, Jensen notes that she was looking to replicate the “glamour” and hospitality of moviegoing in the ’30s and ’40s, a desire that dovetailed perfectly with her mission of creating jobs.
“I really wanted to go back to that,” she says. “In this digital world, there are a lot of innovations that have made it so that theater owners or other businesses can automate their business operations and eliminate a lot of their workforce. I went the opposite way.”
The term “Prospect” is far from an empty one. A number of Jensen’s employees with disabilities have gone on to work jobs outside the theater, while others have even enrolled in college. Still, Jensen is quick to note that employment opportunities for people with disabilities remain scarce, making the theater’s continued growth imperative. “We actually have been growing as much as we can, as we upscale people, adding on more programming, and adding on more employment opportunities,” she says, “so that people can grow within the theater.”
The Prospector’s mission of education extends to its customers. “A lot of people have walked in and they’ve looked around and they’ve said, ‘Now, where are all the disabled people?’” says Jensen. “Because a lot of people have stereotypes in their mind of what somebody who’s disabled might look like. And we’re able to kind of shatter their expectations.” Luckily, she says, people are generally kind—something that may surprise those who grew up in previous eras.
“A while ago, when Harry Smith came from NBC Nightly News, he said to me, ‘Val, now what do you do when the football players come?’” she says. “And I said to him, ‘Times have really changed. As a matter of fact, the captain of our town’s football team was our theater manager and still is our theater manager. It’s how he’s paying his way through college.’”