Twenty five years ago, a group of parents joined forces so they could provide a better life for their children- a life rich with opportunities that fostered emotional and intellectual growth coupled with fun, enriching experiences. The parents shared a common bond: their children were intellectually disabled. They called the organization they formed SPHERE: Special-People Housing-Education-Recreation-Employment.
The impact sphere has had on lives has stretched far beyond the boundaries those who comprise the group. In fact, it has stretched far beyond the boundaries of the town of Ridgefield. For a quarter century, not only those with disabilities, but all people, both young and old, have benefited because they come in contact with SPHERE. Watching the members perform on stage, listening to them sing at community events, rubbing shoulders with them at local shops and restaurants where they proudly work- SPHERE has changed the way people think about those with disabilities.
Today, SPHERE has thirty-two very engaged and enthusiastic members from Fairfield County and beyond. The group is vibrant, thriving and its future is bright. Yet, there was a time when SPHERE faced many obstacles; a time when the future of SPHERE was anything but certain.
Ten years ago, Valerie Jensen, whose sister has Down syndrome, attended a SPHERE board meeting. She arrived home later that evening with her hands full- literally. Jensen was carrying a large file box that contained important documents which told SPHERE’s story since its inception in 1988. . “My husband said, “What are you doing?” Jensen recalls, “I had no choice. I had to step up- it [SPHERE] was in danger of not happening anymore.”
Not once did Jensen look back. From that day onward, she carefully and thoughtfully wove SPHERE into her life. The members became her family. “I wasn’t looking for SPHERE, it found me,” a humble Jensen recalls.
SPHERE found Jensen at a crazy time in her life; Jensen had just given birth to twins. Yet, with all of the chaos that comes from being a new mother, Jensen opened her home and heart to SPHERE. And when she did that, something remarkable happened. Jensen’s chaotic life took on a sense of peace.
“The members have given me so much, I can’t take any credit. I’m getting so much out of these relationships,” says Jensen.
When Jensen enrolled her babies in swimming lessons, she looked no further than a SPHERE member to lend her a helping hand. “I had my hands full. I couldn’t be in the pool with the babies by myself,” explains “She was a good swimmer and the best pool buddy ever. She sang the songs the loudest and was so enthusiastic,” recalls Jensen.
While Incorporating SPHERE and its members into her life was natural to Jensen, she set her sights on helping the community to do the same. Local store owners began hiring more SPHERE members, Ridgefield smiled brightly when they listened to SPHERE singing at annual holiday tree lighting, and seeing SPHERE lead the charge during ROAR’s Paws for the Cause dog walk. “They want to be included, they want people to respect them,” says Jensen.
“We celebrate every small victory,” says Jensen who calls the magical things that happen, “Sphericals”.
The community was star-struck as SPHERE performed Romeo & Juliet on stage at the Ridgefield Playhouse. “Everyone said, they can’t do Shakespeare,” recalls Jensen.
“We had such success,” marvels Jensen who carefully writes each script with each SPHERE member’s strengths and personality in mind. “We hear their voices when we’re writing the scripts,” Jensen says with a smile. “It’s our job to figure out how we can take everyone’s personality and passion and translate that into a performance that makes sense.”
“We applied to mainstream film festivals and won five for Romeo and Juliet. We followed our hearts in 2012 with a pirate story, sparkle island- and we are working on a new script right now,’ says SPHERE Executive Director, Emily Pambianchi.
But Pambianchi and Jensen didn’t stop on the stage. They wanted the community and actors to always be able to savor the memories of each performance. “Val and I switched over to film after playing around with a flip camera and wondering if we could capture the amazingness of Sphere on video. We learned a little about film. We hired a Director of Photography. And we began making movies. We loved the idea of having something permanent,” recalls Pambianchi. “And then something magical happened,” adds Pambianchi, “The public loved it too.”
SPHERE has won accolades for their theatrical performances and motion pictures, but, admits Jensen, “The greatest things don’t happen on the stage, they happen behind the scenes.”
Jensen is not one to rest on her laurels. There are more sphericals on the horizon. “SPHERE has defined who I am. When I’m looking at the world, I’m always thinking of how SPHERE can fit into it and what we can do to make SPHERE better,” says Jensen.
With that in mind, Jensen recently purchased a building located at 25 Prospect Street in Ridgefield (former home of Webster Bank) which she will turn into a three cinema movie theater called The Prospector. Jensen will fashion the theater after an old Manhattan movie palace called The Roxy. The stunningly beautiful theater, which was demolished in 1960, was famous for their classy ushers. “They had hats and coats on and went through intense training. They had to be excellent role models. They were so proud to have the jobs as ushers,” explains Jensen.
The more Jensen learned about the history of The Roxy, the more excited and empowered she became. “The world made sense to me because I want to educate and hire SPHERE members to work in the theater. I want them to put that uniform on,” she adds.
And in 18 short months, when the theater is complete, they will.
Jensen will forever be grateful to the group of parents who came together 25 years ago so they could provide a better life for their children and in doing so, inspired all people to grow in love and union with each other.
“I’m so thankful to SPHERE’s founding fathers for what they did to make it happen,” proclaims Jensen.