“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.”