Connecticut movie theater honors its director for celebrating employees

Valerie Jensen helps people with disabilities at her movie theater.

April 26, 2021, 8:59 AM

In Ridgefield, Connecticut, the Prospector theater is more than just a movie theater, but a place that has given those who work there a chance at life.

At the Prospector, 75% of all employees self-identify with a disability.

"The Prospector Theater makes me feel like I matter," said Joe, an employee at the theater. "When I was a kid, I got picked on a lot in school for my autism. There were people who, you know, they weren't shy about throwing around the 'R' word. The world needs -- desperately needs more, places that you know that have this acceptance."

At the helm of the theater is founder and executive director Valerie Jensen, but many like to call her a god send.

"I want people to come into the prospector and see people with disabilities, people without disabilities, people succeeding, how beautiful that is!" said Jensen.

Jensen said she was inspired to start the theater by her sister, Hope, who was born with Down syndrome. She wanted to create a place where every individual was celebrated.

"What we do here at the theater is sparkle mining," said Kathleen Eubanks, an employee at the theater. "We always try to match with somebody's sparkle. If someone has a great outgoing personality, let's try them at ushering."

For the employees like Emily, who are called "Prospects" because they say working there gives them a bright future, they're not told what they can't do and each opportunity ignites their passion.

"I couldn't speak till I was 5 and doctors used to tell my parents I'd never be able to do half the things I do now," she said. "Here I am going off 30 and having a full time job."

Now, many employees are thanking Jensen for her kindness -- especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the theater to close. Still, Jensen kept every employee on payroll.

"I am forever grateful," said Eubanks.

"It was not easy, but we kept everybody on the payroll, and we did open for about eight months. We closed last month because we had to, just make sure everybody got vaccinated, but we upscaled everybody," Jensen said. "We have been on Zoom. The accessibility features that have come with the new technology platforms means it's going to be even easier -- to include adults with disabilities in the workforce."

Because of the impact she's had in the community, Jensen's co-workers wanted to honor her for her work.

Yardbird, a sustainable outdoor furniture brand who learned about Jensen's efforts, were also inspired and donated $10,000 to her.

After receiving the surprise donation live on "GMA" Jensen also watched a video message from Whoopi Goldberg who told her to "keep up the incredible work and save some popcorn for me."

Jensen said "we have made it through" and that while they plan to reopen next month she hopes "that everyone supports their local theaters."

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