Prospector Theater, Valerie Jensen, Woman Entrepreneur

valeriewithplayhouseMy friend introduced me to Valerie.  She said that her energy and what she has built is worth sharing.  I emailed back and forth with Valerie and eventually got to talk to her.  There is no doubt that most entrepreneurs find a thread that leads them to starting a business.  The most successful ones are following their desires not something that they are struggling to come up with so they can start their own business.  Valerie began volunteering at Sphere an organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities achieve their dreams.  Valerie did not realize it but she has been a self-starter entrepreneur forever but it just took a few steps starting with Sphere before she figured it out.

Valerie grew up in Somers NY.  Her father owned an industrial research chemical company.  Her mother was a kindergarten teacher.  Valerie is a twin.  She is also one of the two sets of twins that her parents had.  Runs in the family.  Her sister Hope, who is one of the other set of twins, has Downs Syndrome.  She was born in 1979 and at that time there was very little support around this.  The other twin of this set was born blind.  The hospital actually told her Mother to leave her Downs Syndrome baby at the hospital when she went home.  As Valerie said, you are born with the cards you are dealt.  It was stressful growing up as the family really did not have the skills and strategies to understand Hope.  The school district was not able to accommodate Hope so she was bussed far away every day to attend school.  She did graduate high school as in NY State you can go to high school until you are 21.  Her blind sister had a totally different trajectory.  She had congenital nystagmus so she can not see what other people see.  This sister went on to graduate from Cornell University and then attended Fordham law school using a scribe to get through the program.  She now practices family law after being an assistant DA in the Bronx.

Every summer the family would leave the day school ended to go up to their house in the Adirondacks until literally the day  school began in the fall around 4am.  It was the one time of the year where there was a sense of freedom.  Their house was not winterized, they had no TV and they would hang out with the kids that were also up there in the summer.  Next door lived a young boy who she would see each summer from the time she was 7 years old and this young man would eventually become her husband.  Gotta love that.

It was not until Valerie attended a special Olympics party at someones house that she did not think of disabilities as a nuisance or an embarrassment.  It was an eye opener.  The people were amazing and she saw each of these individuals as beautiful people.  That event made a deep impact on Valerie that she wasn’t even aware of.

After graduating from high school Valerie went to Albany where she majored in English.  It was a bit of a relief to go off to college and she thought it was going to give her the ability to reinvent herself.  She was not sure what she wanted to do.  Her parents are very traditional and so the one thing that they drilled into her was that when she graduated she would need to get a job that had benefits.  Not surprising that they drove home that benefits were the key.  Valerie spent her junior year abroad in Nottingham, England.  She returned and decided to graduate a semester early.  She began to ramp up.  Right after graduating she went directly into a graduate program in Binghamton getting a degree in elementary and special education.  She finished a two year program in a year.  She wanted to move on with her life.  She got married to her childhood sweetheart and they moved to Ridgefield, CT.

Valerie landed a job teaching at the elementary school in Somers she had gone to.  Being a student one month and then being a teacher of second graders the next month was an adjustment.  Weirdly enough her colleague and mentor was her second grade teacher.  She stayed three years before she had her first son.  She decided to stay home and raise her kids.  She had one son and a set of twins (boy and a girl).  The oldest son was two and a half when she had the twins.  She had zero help, her husband worked crazy hours and looking back she realized she was person without a mission or any plan.

When her kids began school she started to volunteer at Sphere.  This was around 2003.  The organization was helping adults with disabilities enrich their lives through education and the arts.  She had heard this group was doing musical theater at the church across the street from her house.  Valerie started showing up every week.  The director would constantly be late and before Valerie knew it she was taking charge.  She began directing their plays.  Then in 2005 the board of Sphere asked Valerie to take over and she has run it ever since.

A few years ago she shifted from theater to live movies.  She realized that the chances of employment after 21 for the people at Sphere was slim to none.  She would see them go from happy adults to sad people.  The Special Olympics is great but it is seasonal.  Once these adults get up there in age it becomes very difficult.  Valerie began growing the programs to run 12 months a year.

She built the program to have a cooking class, a jewelry class, the movies they were making but what she realized is that the people attending the programs did not need more classes they needed jobs.  80% of people with disabilities are unemployed yet they are smart, dedicated employees.  Valerie started thinking about business opportunities.  She was struggling to figure out what that would be.  Her town definitely had donor fatigue.  While she was working on this she read a story in the local paper about the library expanding into the movie theater next door that would be knocked down.  It was her aha moment and she knew what she would do.

She got the funds together to buy the building before it was knocked down.  She called it the Prospector Theater.  She changed the mission to provide employment training for people with disabilities to help them find jobs.  The employees are called prospects.  The goal is to help those prospects tap into their abilities and then hook up with the right networks for jobs.  She is turning their passions into professions through teaching them production skills on sound editing, working on public announcements, selling their art, jobs for movie sets, etc.

Valerie is incredibly passionate about helping people with disabilities find happiness through employment.  She is a ball of energy.  She should honestly get an award for what she has done for so many people.  It is interesting how her family history, the cards that she was dealt, ended up as something she came back to make a difference.  A seriously impressive big hearted woman.