Sometimes life gives you flying monkeys. But you don’t have to let them knock you off your yellow brick road.
Valerie Jensen had her share of can-I-just-hide-under-the-bed encounters before she was even Dorothy’s age. The first came right after the birth of her younger sister Hope in 1979. “Because Hope has Down syndrome, the doctors told my parents to leave her at the hospital,” Valerie says. “My parents said absolutely not.” They made Hope a part of the family from Day One. The rest of society, however, did not.
“I was very bitter toward everyone who excluded people with disabilities,” Valerie says. “I felt fire when people used the word retard.”
She didn’t just sit around and smolder, though. First, Valerie took the helm at Sphere, a Ridgefield, Connecticut, nonprofit that provides opportunity for disabled people, especially through the performing arts. It helped. But not enough. “They needed more challenge,” Valerie says. “What they really needed was full-time employment.”
The problem, though, is this: Employers aren’t clamoring to hire the disabled. More than 68 percent of people without disabilities participate in the labor force, compared with 17 percent of people with disabilities. “I knew there needed to be a business with a wide range of job types for all abilities,” Valerie says.
The solution to providing those jobs came one day as she was stopped at a red light in the heart of historic Ridgefield. She glanced at the town’s former movie theater, which was about to be torn down. “Lightning struck,” she says. “There it is. The answer.” Valerie set about raising the nearly $30 million needed to refurbish the old building and turn it into a state-of-the-art movie house, the Prospector Theater, a nonprofit that would provide educational and employment opportunities for adults with disabilities.
“It so needed to get built that it was almost like it built itself,” Valerie says. Donors stepped up to pay for the building. Job applications poured in. And on opening night, in November 2014, Valerie and the gang rolled out the pink carpet (it’s her “passion color”—thus the pink hair), ushers put on their pink top hats, and the show was on.
“People were amazed,” Valerie says. “They’re saying, ‘The door was opened for me. Someone greeted me.’ ” And even better than the star treatment, Valerie says, those audience members interacted with people with disabilities—“people who are usually invisible, people who are usually excluded from the workforce.”
And those people shattered expectations. “I heard audience members saying, ‘I never thought this person could do this,’ ” Valerie says. “Family members were in tears. All at once someone believed in the person they love.”
The really amazing thing is this now happens every day at the Prospector. It’s kind of like Valerie’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. “I love the idea of people watching the movie back in 1939 and seeing the screen come alive in Technicolor,” she says. “My hope is that when people walk into the Prospector Theater today, they have the same experience when they see our integrated workforce. Seeing them and the theater flourish is more than I ever dreamed—it’s magical.”