Ridgefield's Prospector Theater featured on 'Good Morning America'

Prospects pose outside Ridgefield's Prospector Theater alongside

Prospects pose outside Ridgefield’s Prospector Theater alongside “Good Morning America” anchor TJ Holmes, holding hand-drawn signs displaying messages of hope, on Monday, April 26.

Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD — Staff members at The Prospector Theater, better known as Prospects, received a surprise visit from “Good Morning America” on April 26.

Dozens of Prospects greeted the nation Monday morning when anchor TJ Holmes visited Ridgefield as part of GMA’s post-Oscars Awards special. The team wanted to spotlight the Prospector as a beacon of hope for movie theaters and the disability community amid a lackluster awards season, national unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Prospector is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing meaningful employment to people with disabilities through the operation of a premium, first-run movie theater. Although roughly 75 percent of Prospects self-identify as having a disability, all employees are encouraged to sparkle, shine and transform their passions into professions.

When Director of Research and Development Mike “Munchie” Santini received the call from “Good Morning America,” he realized the potential of the opportunity.

“Just like the Blues Brothers, we are on a mission,” Santini said. “Our mission is to save movie theaters and show the world how awesomely talented adults with disabilities are through rock-star jobs that demonstrate our sparkle (and) talents.”

Very few within the organization knew about GMA’s plan. The Prospector’s leadership team scheduled Prospects to arrive at the theater on Monday morning under the guise of filming a promotional video. When Prospects heard they were really there to be on “Good Morning America,” they danced with joy.

Holmes surprised the Prospector’s founder and executive director Valerie Jensen in the theater by showing her a pre-made video of Prospects being interviewed about the importance of their jobs.

“I couldn’t speak until I was five and doctors used to tell my parents that I wouldn’t be able to do half of the things that I do now,” said Emily Haughney, one of the theater’s 99 Prospects, during her interview with Holmes. “Here I am — almost 30-years-old and with a full-time job.”

After watching the video, Holmes escorted Jensen outside, where a group of sparkled up Prospects cheered for their founder. But the surprises didn’t stop there. The team received a video message from Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg and a $10,000 donation from Yardbird, a sustainable patio and outdoor furniture company that partnered with ABC.

Jensen also discussed the challenges the theater has overcome over the last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. “It has not been easy, but we’ve kept everyone on the payroll,” she said.

The Prospector has worked hard to keep all Prospects engaged with meaningful employment opportunities by turning to the digital world to continue their mission. “We’ve been on Zoom,” Jensen noted. “The accessibility features that come with technology platforms will make it even easier now to include adults with disabilities in the workforce.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than one million Americans with disabilities have become unemployed, but the Prospector’s model of competitive and integrated employment represents a solution to that problem.

As the segment winded down, Holmes asked Jensen one final question: “What’s next?”

Jensen replied, “We are going to reopen. It’s been a hard year for movie studios, movie theaters and the movie industry, (and) I hope everybody supports their local theaters. Operators from all across the country have reached out to us asking, ‘How can we do it? How can we stay alive?’ And we say, ‘Look at our mission.’”

The Prospector Theater is located at 25 Prospect Street in Ridgefield.