Women of Influence

Valerie Jensen, B.A.’96

Founder, The  Prospector Theater

A Life-Changing Mission

By Stephen Shoemaker, B.A.’02

Valerie Jensen

When Valerie Jensen read about the impending demolition of her town’s defunct theater building, erected in 1939, she thought it a sad turn of events, but little else. A few days later, while stopped at a red light in front of the structure, several ideas clicked into place.

At the time, Jensen served as president of an organization that aims to enrich adults with disabilities through art, entertainment and education. “I began to struggle with the fact that so many people with disabilities were so talented and passionate about working, yet could find no jobs,” she says.

Then she found herself face-to-façade with the doomed building in Ridgefield, Conn. “At that moment, it all just came together: In a theater, there’s such a wide spectrum of jobs.”

And so the building was given new life as The Prospector Theater, a four-screen, state-of-the art cinema house staffed by more than 80 employees, most with disabilities. This isn’t a second-run cinema; The Prospector’s grand opening in November 2014 coincided with the release of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I.”

The non-profit also features a full café, gourmet popcorn and ushers who greet guests at the door – with umbrellas, if it’s raining – and before each show. Jensen says the experience harkens to the Golden Age of movie-going in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s the type of treatment you won’t find at the nearest multiplex, which is 10 miles away. More important, it provides jobs for hard-working, motivated citizens who are ecstatic to make money for themselves and then spend it locally.

“When you really see the magic of meaningful employment happen, it’s life changing. And it makes you wonder why this isn’t happening in every town in America,” says theater founder Jensen.

Visit www.prospectortheater.org for more information.