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Prospector Theater provides HOPE (and a job) for adults with disabilities

Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman surprised employees of

Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman surprised employees of the Prospector Theater during HOPE Week on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. Photo Credit: New York Yankees

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. - Like Kevin Costner's character in "Field of Dreams," Valerie Jensen had a vision. One afternoon in early 2014, she stood in front of a decrepit, vacant former theater set to be demolished.

She heard a voice inside her head: "If you build it, they will come . . . and watch movies."

But Jensen's vision extended beyond simply rebuilding a doomed movie theater. She grew up with a sister who has Down syndrome, and saw firsthand how difficult everyday tasks and activities can be for individuals with disabilities, especially finding employment.

Approximately 56 million adults have some form of disability in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Jensen said 80 percent of those individuals are unemployed.

"That's an amazing talent pool," Jensen said.

The nonprofit Prospector Theater in Ridgefield employs 110 people, 70 of whom have a disability, Jensen said. The multiplex opened to the public in November 2014 and is now, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi described it while visiting Tuesday as part of the Yankees' HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel), "a place that truly gives people a lot of hope."

"I think it's magnificent what Val has done," Girardi said. "I think it's an example of what you can do if you really have a lot of love in your heart and are willing to give back.

"It gives them a safe place to go. I know for a lot of our players, the safest place a lot of times is on the field. And that's what you want to feel about your place of employment. Val has given a lot of people a lot of hope, a lot of love and just created a wonderful atmosphere."

It hits you as soon as you walk into the theater. First, you receive a warm welcome from an usher, and if you walk a little farther into the brightly colored lobby, you'll come across enthusiastic workers behind the concession stand and at the box office.

"Seeing the confidence," Chase Headley said, "I think that's the biggest thing. I've been around some special- needs people in the past and the confidence that the workers have that are here is special . . . The interpersonal skills are phenomenal."

Pictures of the theater's employees line the wall down to the lower-level theaters. But perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the atmosphere at the Prospector Theater can be seen in a large painting of Jensen's that hangs between theater doors in the lobby: the words "Do Good, Work Hard, Live Happy, Prospect" are painted over a rainbow backdrop.

But it didn't get this way overnight.

"It's not easy. It's really hard work," Jensen said. "People don't see the thousands of hours that we put in, the tears and crying and failing and falling and building back up. That's really where the real joy and sparkle is. You've got that moment where somebody has come in, mainly unemployable, and we teach them, using repetition, modeling and teaching tools and games. Then all of a sudden, they're rocking what they're doing.

"It's amazing. You've changed that person's life. And you've changed their families' life. And the whole community benefits from that. It's beautiful. That's my sport. It's got to feel like hitting that grand slam in the bottom of the ninth."

When Girardi, Headley, Brian McCann and Brian Cashman surprised the employees with their visit Tuesday morning, it surpassed even Jensen's wildest dreams. They presented Jensen with a check for $10,000 to help the theater's mission.

"Oh my gosh, I still can't believe it," said Jensen, whose pink hair matches the theater's pink color scheme. "The Yankees being here helps to show us that people are listening. That people were looking out onto the horizon and they saw that beacon of light and they came to us. So I'm hoping that others will recognize the value and importance of making room for people with disabilities.

"Making very small accommodations is really all you need to do. But I find it's just changing the attitude of the employers and co-workers. That remains one of the biggest barriers for employment. We can show that people with disabilities are so competent, so capable."

Jensen wasn't the only one excited Tuesday.

"When you hear about it from reading stories and people talking about it, you know it was going to be a special place," Headley said. "But then you show up and you actually see the building -- what a beautiful facility they have, first and foremost. But then the people here, starting with Valerie, and all the workers. It's incredible."

For Headley, days like Tuesday offer some of the best perks of being a professional ballplayer.

"We don't always love the spotlight that comes with being a Yankee," he said. "But when you have an opportunity to use the platform that we have to shine a light on a number of things that are so amazing, this is the really fun part."


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