RIDGEFIELD, Conn. (WTNH) — With a drizzle of chocolate and a sprinkle of sparkle, workers at The Prospector are making a special brand of gourmet popcorn for Autism Awareness Month.
“I also pop the popcorn,” 40-year-old Jenny Bender said.
What started in 2014 as a movie theater — employing those with disabilities — has grown and the popcorn has been a big part of that since the shutdown of the pandemic.
“This was an alternate revenue stream that allowed us to keep meaningful work happening, nobody lost their paychecks during this time,” Director of Operations and Technology Ryan Wenke said.
The treat is sold at the concession stand. Employees also package-up the popcorn, which can be ordered online and sent to all fifty states.
Flavors range from sweet to salty — and none of them disappoint!
“Prior to this, I never really had a job that I took pride in,” 28-year-old Joe Gillotti said.
Gillotti, who is on the spectrum, leaves a hand-signed note in every box. He’s worked at the non-profit since the beginning, dressing-up like movie characters at premieres and even doing embroidery work on hats and scarves.
“This is one that changed my life for the better in a very significant way and I’m very grateful for it,” he said.
“This is a very important mission for us and the country,” Wenke said. “About 80 percent of Americans with disabilities do not have jobs and we do not believe that’s okay.”
Wenke, who believes The Prospector was at the forefront of this conversation a decade ago, said it now consults with other businesses.
“We need more employers understanding that those of us with disabilities are talented, we’re an untapped workforce, we just need to be given an opportunity,” Wenke said.
“I just love being with the people and it’s just a big family,” Bender said.
The next goal is to grow the popcorn business to include international shipping and sales in more stores.
Gillotti said he was bullied as a child and was told he would amount to nothing. He wishes those naysayers could see him now.
“Look at what I’m doing; look at the amazing impact I’m having on the community around me,” he said.
The folks at The Prospector say that theaters are filled once again and they’re expecting a blockbuster summer.