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Making a Difference

A Movie Theater With a Mission: Employing the Disabled

This Boss Gives the Disabled What She Says They Want Most: Jobs 2:20

A movie theater in Connecticut isn't just showing the latest Hollywood hits: The Prospector Theater employs mostly disabled people, giving them valuable work experience and confidence they can succeed in the job world.

Valerie Jensen, whose sister Hope has Down syndrome, realized disabled individuals needed jobs and work experience after developing arts programs for them for many years. When she learned the Ridgefield Playhouse, a movie theater built in 1939, was slated for demolition, she saw an opportunity.

"We didn't need more trips to the pond, more trips to the zoo. We just needed meaningful employment," she said.

Only 20 percent of disabled people work, compared to 68 percent of those who aren't disabled, according to September 2014 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jensen saved the playhouse from demolition and founded the four-theater commercial movie house, a nonprofit, in historic Ridgefield. Most of the more than 80 theater employees are disabled. But they weren't there just because they have a disability, Jensen said.

"They're here because they are a really, really valuable employee," she said.

"We are 'The Prospector' after all," she noted. "And as prospectors I work with my prospects to find out what their sparkle is."

For Michael Obediah, who has multiple sclerosis, that talent is writing grant proposals for the theater. He has seen his colleagues prosper in their jobs.

"It's tragic to lose the intelligence, the ideas, the energy, the spirituality of people who otherwise would be left to the side," he said. "We're cracking open this incredible treasure of human potential."

Ashley Shriver and Grace Kolf making gourmet popcorn at The Prospector Theater. The Prospector Theater