HOPE Week: Theater employs disabled

Across the United States, more than 57 million adults have some form of disability, 80 percent of whom are unemployed. Valerie Jensen grew up with a sister who has Down Syndrome and has seen first-hand how difficult everyday tasks and activities can be for individuals with disabilities, especially finding a fulfilling job. She recognizes that many who have disabilities face an internal struggle to feel as if they have a purpose in life.

One afternoon, Jensen was driving in Ridgefield, Conn., when she saw an old, vacant former theater that was going to be demolished. She immediately had a vision — to transform the building into a unique movie theater, staffed primarily by individuals with disabilities. Over the course of the next several months, she made her vision a reality as The Prospector Theater opened to the public in November 2014.

Staff members there are referred to as “prospects,” as a way to make them feel inspired to realize their own potential and give them the necessary training to advance to other jobs using their skills developed at the theater. In the 10 months since its grand opening, the staff of The Prospector Theater has grown to more than 100 people with no signs of slowing down.

As Jensen put it, “We really didn’t need more trips to the pond. We really didn’t need more trips to the zoo. We just needed meaningful employment.”

As part of the Yankees’ HOPE Week initiative, general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, third baseman Chase Headley, catcher Brian McCann and first baseman Mark Teixeira surprised Jensen and her staff at the theater Tuesday, took a tour and talked spoke with the theater’s prospects about the importance of teamwork

In many ways, The Prospector Theater is like a traditional theater; visitors purchase their tickets just inside the main entrance and can stop at one of two concession stands before going to see a popular new release. It has four theaters, ranging in capacity from 16-167 people, with the smallest theater designed especially for people with sensory issues who may not enjoy movies in larger settings. Each of the four theaters has handicap seating, along with fixed chairs so friends and families are able to watch movies together. All of the theaters are equipped with technology to aid those who are hearing and/or visually impaired. Each offers closed-captioning glasses and high-quality headphones.

“The answer to the unemployment epidemic among adults with disabilities is in our own backyard, on every Main Street in America,” Jensen said. “Small businesses are missing out on a huge resource that lies in the incredible talent pool of the 57 million talented Americans with disabilities, who are willing, competent and able to work.”

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