Thursday, July 21, 2016

Movies and a Mission: the Prospector Theater

It is worth noting at the start of this post that this is NOT a sponsored post or a paid advertisement. There is some shameless gushing and praise, and in the world of blogs that seems to often involve compensation or free goods--that is not the case here (this is not a money-making blog, and I don't do sponsored posts). I'm just gushing because this is worth gushing over.

Oh, hello there.

It seems as if it's been 6 months and 6 days since my last blog post (but who's counting). Spring semester started at the end of January, and summer semester started 3 days after spring semester ended. I spent those two semesters working in the clinic (with my very own clients) and, well, I can be a mom and a student clinician, or a mom and a writer, but apparently I cannot be a mom, a student clinician, and a writer. Not yet, anyway :)  (This is where I should mention that I'm very active on the Facebook page, so that's the place to follow along and join in. I'm also going to try to move some of the "best" FB posts/reflections over here in my upcoming time off.)

Speaking of time off: I'm on vacation, folks. Maya's still in school, but the rest of us aren't. And because sometimes family time trumps school time (shh, don't tell) today we pulled Maya out of school to go somewhere more important.

The movies. 


It wasn't the movie (Finding Dory) that made the trip special (although the movie was great, and particularly resonates with families of children with disabilities---read more about that here). What made the trip really special was the theater.

You guys, this theater. The Prospector Theater (in Ridgefield, CT) is "a 501(c)(3) non-profit first-run movie theater that provides meaningful employment to people with disabilities."* That sentence alone is notable---as it is the only non-profit first run theater in the country, and because meaningful employment for people with disabilities is (devastatingly) hard to come by. The US Department of Labor Report from 2014 reported that 80% of adults with disabilities were unemployed.* 

But wait, there's more.

It's gorgeous. It's spotless. It's staffed by a group of friendly, professional people who are genuinely glad to see you and are working to ensure you have a good experience. The environment is warm, welcoming, and flexible. Movies aren't easy for Maya----she needs sensory supports, she needs movement, she needs flexibility. 

I can't remember how we first heard about the Prospector Theater, but I know that it crossed my Facebook feed around a year and a half ago (it has only been in existence since 2014). Last summer, when we thought the kids were ready for their first movie theater experience, I knew exactly where we were going to go---we headed to the Prospector Theater to see Inside Out. The experience was wonderful, and I knew that when we had the time for movie #2 (and something really captivating was playing, because movies can be a bit of work for Maya) we would return. And I knew that this time I would take pictures and write about it (what I didn't know is that we would haphazardly end up meeting the founder of the theater and getting a little tour). Which brings us to today. 

We were pretty excited.
image is a white wooden sign which reads "ridgefield library (forward arrow)Prospector Theater (right arrow)" posted in green grass

image is Will and Maya standing outside the entrance to the theater

We arrived early for the first movie of the day, and were literally the only non-employees there (more on that later). It gave us time to try out the bean bag chairs in the theater (which I totally would have stayed in, but the kids wanted to move back to the seats for the movie) and re-explore how beautiful (and meticulously clean) the theater is.

The theater our movie was being shown in:
image shows Will and Maya sitting in bean bags with the stadium seating section of the theater behind them

There were stars on the ceiling.
 image shows Will and Maya laughing in the bean bags, the blue lighting and stars on the ceiling is visible above them

The lobby.
 image shows an area of the lobby with fancy wood risers and different blocks to sit on. The bright pink walls of the mezzanine can be seen in the rear.

 This was inside the bathroom. Inside! It's so pretty.
 images shows Maya and I standing before a full length mirror, with white sparkly walls and dressing-room-style light bulbs lining the mirror

They have a bar. A coffee-but-also-wine-and-good-beer-on-tap bar.
image shows the entrance to the coffee and wine/beer bar, with small sign outside reading that "Beer & Wine are now served at Heads Up Cafe". The wall is exposed brick, and there is a spiral rack displaying t-shirts for sale outside of the entrance.

We were literally the only ones there to see Finding Dory at 10:45. An accidental private showing. We ate popcorn, we had a wrapping blanket and a few other sensory tricks ready. The usher in charge of our theater was courteous and helpful, and as the last scene faded away 3 employees appeared to assist with clean-up, thank us for coming, and bid us farewell. 

And we were just about to leave when I noticed that the founder of the theater was there. I know a bit of the backstory from following the theater on social media and checking out their website (more on that below)---the building had once been a theater, then a bank, then was scheduled for demolition. Valerie Jensen ended up taking over the building and having it restored/rebuilt into a stunning, fully accessible* 4-theater movie theater.  *really fully accessible: every theater and the projection booth are fully accessible, and all theaters support both closed captioned glasses that provide subtitles and high-quality headphones that stream dialogue and provide descriptions of scenery, etc.  Val, sitting with her computer in the lobby, was hard to miss---both because she is an active presence on the theater's Facebook page and because she has fluorescent pink hair.  We were half out the door (literally, Dave and Will were already walking to the car) when I turned back to say hi to her and compliment the great work and mission of the theater.

Long story short, we were there for another half hour. (The guys came back in from the parking lot.)

Val chatted with us, small talk at first, then more in depth. We talked about teaching (she is a former teacher as well) and about the theater.  She told us about seeing the need for meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities and responding to that need for jobs. The theater has 110 employees (known as Prospects) and receives thousands of applications. To create maximum job opportunities, the Prospects run every aspect of the theater--from concession stand to landscaping. She described the running of the theater as a model of inefficiency---everything takes a little more work than necessary to ensure the necessity of more job opportunities. 

We talked to her about AAC and Maya showed her Mini. Val excitedly led us to a mosaic on the second floor that she had created as a communication/conversational piece. Embedded among the colorful pieces are a variety of images and objects---and the purpose of the piece is to serve as a communication starter. She talked about how communication pressure could be lifted when two people approached the piece together---and that by simply following the lead of whatever a person gravitated toward or commented on, a communication partner could easily get to know someone better and find common interests.

One side of the piece
 image is of a brightly colored (blues and greens, mostly) mosaic that is the size and shape of a  fireplace

A close up: I spy Santa Claus
 image is a close-up section of the mosaic, with a picture of Santa's face in the middle and the words "yes I can" spelled out in letter tiles

There's Val's hot pink car
image is a close-up of another section of the mosaic, featuring a bright pink matchbox-style car

So, art as a communication support. How brilliant is that?

Eventually it was time to leave (we had lunch at a great spot within walking distance, fyi). Before we left we asked Val what the theater needed most---and the answer surprised us: it needs more patrons and more publicity. More folks walking through the door to see movies. I imagine that more special events, more birthday (and other) parties, more people stopping by to get coffee or buy a t-shirt would also be very welcome. BUT WAIT---if you're too far away to stop by regularly (or ever), you can still support their mission.  And it's easy to do!

First, follow the Prospector Theater on social media. Even if you don't live close to the theater, someone that you know might live close by. Or someone that you know may like or share the information with someone that they know who lives nearby. So, click here to like their Facebook page, and then go click "like" on a few recent posts. When you see them post stuff, like it (it doesn't matter if you like whatever movie is being promoted, you're clicking like to support their mission . . . although honestly they show all of the best current movies. Plus they're showing Goonies and ET this summer. Goonies and ET, people.)  That should get the FB algorithm to bump it onto a few of your friend's feeds, and to show you some of their upcoming posts. You can also find them on Twitter (here), and Instagram (here), and probably on other social media spots that I'm too old/out-of-the-loop enough to know about (what's a "snapchat"?).   

Next, share the heck out of this.Share this post, or the theater's website.  More people should know about this place, and there should be more places like this.

Also, if you're within a reasonable distance, go see some movies. As I mentioned, it's about an hour's drive for us---but a pretty drive. In the fall it must be stunning. The theaters are beautiful and underpopulated, and there are multiple meal options within a block or two. Take a drive and make a day/night of it. (Or, if you're not within driving distance, do you know someone who is? Be a stellar friend and buy them a gift card.)

Finally, the Prospector can host events---they have private party space. Do you know businesses looking for unique event space? Or people looking for a cool spot to host something? Or a unique birthday party idea? Here it is.

We can't wait to go back.

Maya, the flier she was reading about upcoming events, and Val
image is Maya standing next to Val, who is kneeling. They are jointly holding a flier with this week's movie offerings. The wooden risers of the lobby are behind them.

Again, not sponsored in any way--no goods or services have been provided to me. We (happily) bought tickets, concessions, and a t-shirt, and we had never spoken to anyone at the theater prior to today. 

*description and statistic taken from the theater's website and promotional flier


  1. Maybe I'm biased, but, in my personal experience, rather a lot of people with disabilities manage to find meaningful employment.

    My sister and I were raised by a single, disabled parent -- my dad, who just happens to be legally blind. He's a physics professor and a good third of his faculty colleagues would likely be diagnosed as on the spectrum had they been born 30-50 years earlier. Ditto his past grad students. Literally half of his current grad students *are* formally diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. (Academia is a surprisingly friendly and welcoming place for the differently-abled).

    My husband has ADHD and an auditory processing disorder. He's been gainfully employed at the State Department for years (and his boss is a woman who cannot use her hands, as a result of thalidomide exposure in utero).

  2. Kate, that's great--and an interesting point about academia being particularly welcoming.

    I don't know anything about the Department of Labor survey, but I would imagine that the numbers of employed people with disabilities vary largely depending on what exactly their disability is. For example, I would guess that adults with developmental disabilities, particularly those who may not have had access to the traditional education system (much less college or post-college academic experiences) might be more likely to struggle to find a variety of employment opportunities than those who have had traditional educational experiences? 80% unemployment is staggering. Like many parents of children with disabilities, I worry about the lack of opportunities Maya may have when she reaches adulthood. I hope that more employers are as welcoming and accessible as this theater is (and as you have found academia to be).

    1. I don't think I know anybody with a disability who doesn't have a college degree -- and the vast majority (of people I, personally, know with disabilities) have graduate degrees. My theory on the welcomingness of academia to those with disabilities is mostly due to all the proverbial eggs in the brains basket (ie few left for social/life skills baskets) being par for the course.

      I'm assuming the 80% unemployment rate for the disabled includes (1) all disabilities, from the mildest dyslexia to the severest quadriplegia, and everything in between and (2) only those who self-disclose as disabled, despite the fact that lots of people don't or won't. (My dad, to this day, refuses to. He won't tick the box, so the college that has employed him for nearly 40 years does not, cannot, count him as a disabled staffer).

      It's also worth noting that employment prospects for the non-disabled vary considerably too -- a non-disabled person with a grad degree will have a much easier time finding a stable, well-paid, meaningful job than a non-disabled high school dropout.

      The skills a person, disabled or not, brings to the table matter. A lot.

  3. I will definitely share this up! And it's worth noting that the beanbag chairs are also great for restless kids in general. And you are correct that the drive up in the fall is gorgeous. :) (Did you take the Saw Mill to 35?) If families want to make a day trip or a weekend getaway of it, the Aldrich museum is right up the block. The new playground in Ballard Park, across from the library is great, too. There's also The Garden of Ideas, about ten minutes, maybe less from The Prospector, up 116.

  4. Meaningful employment for individuals with multiple or severe disabilities is shockingly scarce. Yes, many people with ADHD or an anxiety disorder or mild autism or learning disabilities achieve professional-level employment (and may not even disclose their disabilities to their employers). However, people with more severe disabilities that require significant accommodations to the working environment- those who cannot independently navigate their environments, or are non-speaking, or have dual sensory impairments, or have cognitive disabilities, or have extremely limited mobility- often either cannot find employment at all or are relegated to meaningless, repetitive tasks at sub-minimum wages (which is, horrifically, still legal for individuals with disabilities: In addition, there is definitely still significant discrimination towards individuals with even mild disabilities who are fully capable of holding jobs with only minor accommodations despite the fact that such discrimination is illegal. We should absolutely celebrate the opportunities that do exist, but it's important not to minimize the challenges that many people with disabilities still face in transitioning into the working world. That's why causes like this are so important.

    1. Well, it sort of makes sense that a cognitive disability would limit an individual's employment prospects -- if you need a whole bunch of supervision, indefinitely, it's a harder sell to an employer.

  5. Maya, Will, Dana:

    So glad you chose the Prospector Theatre for your experience of FINDING DORY.

    Three years ago I "met" one of the employees - Juliette Barberie - through her Mum's [Jill Edelman] blog and book THIS CRAZY QUILT.

    A March 2016 post about Juliette's Prospector experience
    2015 Review
    Inside Out
    The power of meaningful employment: January 2015
    November 2014: Employed and some tips
    Unbridled Joy, some Ick and a Great Cocktail - probably close to the time I "met" Juliette

    And Maya and Will must have felt full of possibility and everything.

    Outdoor cinema is indeed fabulous. Indeed I made some purchases Christmas 2015 to make it possible, like a lounge chair and checking out Lunar Drive-in and the Cameo.

    Let's make meaning together. Did you see Cara Liebowitz's post on meaningful employment?

    And there is another on the Friendship Circle: Coping with job loss

    ["Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?"]

    Nancy: thank you for mentioning The Garden of Ideas and the Aldrich museum.

  6. I cannot tell you how much I love this post and this theater. I googled how to makea PECS book and yours was like the 3rd one! AWESOME blog, definitely will be back, My 14yo son has autism and is non verbal.