Why a Movie Theater?
The town of Ridgefield once had a movie theater. The Ridgefield Playhouse was built in 1939, and served as a single-screen movie theater for 40 years, then a bank for another 40. After the bank moved out, the Ridgefield Library next door purchased the derelict building. Founder and visionary Valerie Jensen read an article in the Ridgefield Press that said the old theater was scheduled for demolition – the cost of renovations were too prohibitive for the library. Sad, she thought, still not understanding the significance.
A few days later Val found herself at the stoplight on Prospect Street, directly in front of the doomed theater. At that red light, she looked at the building. The building looked at her. There was a flash, a vision, and they both knew, in that instant before the light had a chance to turn green, what Val needed to do: rebuild the theater. Better than any theater ever. It was settled; it had to happen.
The Prospector Theater is a new model of social enterprise. It pairs a first-run, commercial movie theater with the mission of training and employing adults with disabilities. It's a not-for-profit system, with the competitiveness and transparency of a for-profit business model. It shows how community groups, businesses, and people in the private sector – working together – can improve the quality of lives for those with disabilities, while lessening the financial burden on the government and helping boost employment rates.
An Opportunity to Change Lives
Thanks to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1975) and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA), our society has benefited from a transformation in the accessibility of buildings, transportation, communication and education for people with disabilities. These acts have inspired a new generation of young adults with disabilities. They are confident, competent, smart, ready, willing and able to pursue rewarding careers like never before. This new generation knows that being employed is not only a part of being an adult, but also a way to become a responsible, contributing participant in American society. Having a job is important financially, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
Sadly, almost 25 years after the passage of the ADA, unemployment of working-age individuals with disabilities is still at an unacceptable level. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the labor force participation rate among people with disabilities is 20.4%, compared to the 68.3% for people without disabilities (May 2016). Discrimination, poverty, prejudice, obesity, isolation, depression, and unemployment are major problems suffered by individuals in this group. The creation of meaningful employment is the ultimate sustainable source for improving the quality of lives of people with disabilities.
The founder of the Prospector Theater, Valerie Jensen, is a resident of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Val has been interested in improving the quality of lives of people with disabilities her entire life. Val's sister, Hope, was born in 1979 with Down Syndrome. Hope’s greatest joy in life is working her 2 jobs, and her love and enthusiasm for working highlighted to Val the importance of creating more jobs and opportunities for people with disabilities.