Employer of the Year: Prospector Theater channels employees' passion

In front of a computer screen, mouse in hand, Rachel Wise was at work, finishing up a flip-book animation that will be shown to audiences at the Prospector Theater, publicizing an upcoming movie.

She draws the cartoons, uploads them to a computer, colors them, and animates them using Premiere Pro software. The videos are a minute or a minute and a half long. She’s made about 30 of them.

Rachel, who graduated from RHS in 2009, has worked at the Prospector for three years now. She likes having a job.

“Yeah,” she said. “Wednesday — payday.”

Daniel Conille of Brookfield says working at the Prospector has made a difference in his life.

“I was a shy person — didn’t talk,” he said. “Now, everything’s changed.”

Like many of the theater’s workers — “Prospects,” as they’re called — Conille takes on a number of different jobs at the first-run, four-screen movie house.

“I do clean team. I do concession. Box office, Heads Up Cafe, usher, kitchen,” he said.

“Daniel is also ‘M.C. Daniel’ and makes rap videos for the theater,” said Mike Santini, the Prospector’s director of development.

The work life of camaraderie and purpose that the Prospector has provided for some 190 people with disabilities since opening in 2014 earned the theater recognition as “Employer of the Year” by the Connecticut General Assembly.

As part of the state’s celebration of April as Autism Awareness Month, a five-member delegation from the Prospector — founder and executive director Valerie Jensen, Santini, Wise, Conille, and projectionist and technology specialist Tessa O’Connor — went to Hartford April 12 to receive the award recognizing the theater’s dedication to people and families dealing with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

In making the presentation, Sen. Toni Boucher, whose 26th District includes Ridgefield, commended the Prospector for “providing both entertainment and employment opportunities for those with ASD.”

300,000 tickets

The Prospector Theater was nominated for the Employer of the Year Award by the Connecticut Autism Action Coalition, an organization that includes educators, state workers and officials, and parents of people on the autism spectrum. While the award recognizes the theater’s efforts on behalf of people with disabilities, the theater is also a business that contributes to the vitality of Ridgefield’s downtown.

“Over 300,000 people have bought tickets to first-run movies, and Prospects have entertained and engaged audiences on and off the screen,” said Jensen.

“Our model of integrated and competitive employment has resulted in meaningful job creation and the adaptation of new and emerging technologies — both high- and low-tech,” she said.

Lighting the path

The Prospector seeks to serve as a model and hopes its efforts will lead to employment opportunities at other businesses.

“We help light the path by educating and demonstrating the potential and value of adults with disabilities in the workforce and in the community,” Jensen said. “Everyone has their sparkle — and pairing the right people with the right job intensifies their sparkle value. It’s a win-win by the popcorn bucketful.”

Noting that nearly 80% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed, Santini said that he theater is always seeking ways to demonstrate the “talents, capabilities, and employability” of its workforce.

And it encourages people to explore their talents.

Wise’s artistic inclinations were apparent, and eventually found a purpose in the short animations the theater now uses to publicize upcoming shows.

“When she joined us, she had a passion for drawing and animation, and we found ways to channel that,” Santini said.

She learned to work with the computer and the animation software to make the flip-book videos.

“She’s gotten to the point, now, she’s independent and can do it all from start to finish,” Santini said.

“Rachel’s developed her skills and portfolio. And we, as a business, get awesome marketing tools,” he said. “Rachel makes the flip-books for all the upcoming movies, and audiences see them and get to talk to Rachel about the flip-books she’s made.”

She also works concessions, and plays keyboard in the Prospect Band.

Wise recently moved into her own apartment, where she lives with her cat, Frida.

While he works in a variety of jobs at the Prospector, Conille’s talent shows in the rap music videos he makes.

“I also give speeches,” he said.

He lives in Brookfield with his sister and her family — including his two nephews, ages 4 and 2.

“Lotta energy,” he said.

He added, “I spend time with my mom in Norwalk on weekends.”