Valerie Jenson raised millions of dollars to open a state-of-the-art movie house that provides a phenomenal movie-going experience and serves guests exceptional food and drinks. But the bottom line for Jenson isn’t her business’s profit – in fact, the Prospector Movie House is a non-profit created specifically with the goal of providing employment and opportunities to adults with special needs. Jenson’s employees range from individuals with learning disabilities, emotional struggles, chromosomal abnormalities (like Down syndrome), and physical disabilities (such as muscular dystrophy).
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“From the moment you walk in the door, you know something remarkable is happening,” says NBC’s Harry Smith of the Ridgefield, Connecticut establishment. In the center of the theater is an eclectic art sculpture that looks like a mishmash of unrelated items. “If you don’t have a job,” says Jenson, “if you can’t find your place in life, you can feel like a discarded piece of junk.” That’s what the art sculpture represents – the individuals who need to find their place, and who are in fact excellent employees. The problem? Many employers don’t take the time to discover that truth.
Jenson spent years working with people like her sister, who lives with a disability. Her goal was always to improve their lives and to help them discover their full potential. What she learned was that the traditional approach to keeping people with disabilities busy was not solving the real issue: they needed – and deserved – jobs. “We didn’t need more trips to the zoo,” she said. “We just needed meaningful employment.” She calls her employees her “prospects,” and gives them various opportunities in order to learn about them and see how they “sparkle.”
“We’re cracking open this incredible treasure of human potential,” an employee who has MS says of the Prospector Movie House’s approach. Another employee who has Down syndrome writes commercials for the theater. He beams as he explains to Smith that his work is autonomous. He does his job “all by myself. I don’t need any help, I can do it.”
NBC ends the segment with a fitting challenge, to “just think if this could be possible in your town.” For Jenson, the noteworthy element of her work is not that employing people with special needs is “nice.” Rather, she hopes to raise awareness of the truly exceptional work ethic and attitude that these individuals bring to the market. Employers are the ones who need to recognize the potential.