Our business manager, Claire, looked into employment opportunities for individuals with developmental differences and checked out a business that has made neurodiversity a priority.

As Seesaw’s new business manager, I think about money a lot. I’m supposed to. As a student, I think about money a lot. We all do. Will I be able to find work in a field that I’m passionate about, while still putting food on my table? Am I getting a degree in the right thing to land the job that I want? What is the job that I want? It’s easy to fall into a never ending spiral of questions like these. However, we often forget that non-neurotypical people do not always get to ask questions like these. The statistics are staggering. Over one third of 20-somethings on the autism spectrum have never held a job. According to numbers reported by the National Survey for Americans with Disabilities in 2010, 59% of the general population aged 16 to 64 was employed, while just 21% of adults with disabilities were. And that’s not all. There’s a social element that comes with these low numbers. Without employment, adults with developmental differences may not have a reason to leave home and be social; in fact, they may not be able to afford social excursions.

And then, there are businesses like The Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, CT. The Prospector is a non-profit,  “dedicated to providing meaningful employment opportunities for adults with disabilities through the operation of a premium, four screen, first-run movie theater. Employees of the Prospector, referred to as Prospects, are encouraged to sparkle, shine, and transform their passions into professions.”

I was lucky enough to sit down with Valerie Jensen, the founder and visionary behind the business to talk about The Prospector and the importance of meaningful employment for adults with developmental differences.

First and foremost, The Prospector is a business. While they do operate as a non-profit, every decision and hire that they make is examined for sustainability.

While Ms. Jensen understands the great need for employment for people with developmental differences, she emphasized that every employee has a purpose. “We are not just creating work for the sake of work.” And in this decision to make sure that every prospect has a specific and important purpose in the business, they get passionate employees in every aspect of the theater’s functions. Ms. Jensen said, “You have to harness that passion, we call it sparkle. You will never get anyone to work as hard as when they’re doing something they love.”

What does this mean? This means that when Frank came looking for work, he was able to channel his obsession for tires into balloon sculpting. Upon my visit, there was a partially done balloon sculpture in the lobby, in celebration of Finding Dory. This means that there is someone who is excited about baking the treats for concessions and someone who is excited about collecting ticket stubs and telling you to enjoy the movie. I met one employee who loves social media and found her passion on the theater’s Facebook page. I met another, who had painstakingly mastered an industrial embroidery machine, and he showed me the towels that he was putting the theater’s logo on in preparation for an event later this summer.

    There is an element of care that comes with a business like this one. Not being able to answer the phone is not a reason to not get a job at the box office; rather it is reason to practice. And whether it takes a day, a week, or a month, to be able to pick up that phone when it rings, success is always a cause for celebration. Not wearing deodorant to work is not a cause for termination, but rather, a way into a conversation about hygiene and what is appropriate in a workplace.

Valerie says, “Everyone gets immediate feedback and support.” And support she does. Walking around the theater with her felt like a celebration, rather than a Tuesday morning. She said that many people have asked her how they too can open a movie theater or a business like hers. And she doesn’t have a solid answer for them. She describes opening The Prospector as, “the perfect storm” in that there was no other movie theater for ten miles, the location was in the center of town, and very walkable, and she had connections and experience from her previous work with an organization called SPHERE.

However, she noted that the way she runs her business could be applied to any industry. In fact, because of the passion of her employees, they have been exploring businesses in gourmet popcorn, cleaning, and embroidery, as a result of discoveries made in the two years since The Prospector’s opening.

Most importantly, Val notes, “We’re not nice. We’re just doing what’s right AND makes good business sense.”

If you’re in the tri-state area this summer, be sure to check out a movie with Seesaw’s new friends at the Prospector Theater: http://www.prospectortheater.org/