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Once in danger of closure, Michigan theater employs people of all abilities

The movie theater changed ownership in September and is doing much better since pandemic restrictions were relaxed. Now they're making sure everyone feels welcome.

FREMONT, Michigan — Fresh off her shift as a mail carrier, Tanya Mendoza walks into Fremont Cinemas. The smell of popcorn fills the air. In the theater nearest to the entrance, you can hear "Space Jam: A New Legacy" playing on the other side of a set of doors. At the counter, a group of smiling faces greets Mendoza to her other job.

Mendoza, along with Tim Powell, bought the cinema last year after COVID-19 restrictions put the business in jeopardy of closing for good. They put three months of work into renovating the place.

"I have been able to spend countless hours with my daughter and son-in-law because they were the main muscle behind getting this cleaned up and painted, getting the renovations done," she said.

"We would come here after our regular jobs. The time would just slip away. We would leave at midnight, or 1 o’clock. We joked that we would just need to put a loft apartment up here so we could just sleep."

Mendoza's love for the Fremont Cinemas dates back to the early 1990s when she worked here herself, and it became even more important to her when she had children of her own. Her two sons Caleb and Nathan both have autism.

"My boys could always come here and there aren’t many places when you have kids with autism that you can bring them that you feel welcome," she said.

The family wants to make sure Fremont Cinemas remains a place where people of all abilities can visit and work.

"After I bought it we said hey, we can have this as a place where people with disabilities can work and it’ll be a place for their future and meeting other people," Mendoza said.

Todd Koopmans, Ryan Masselink and Mendoza's son Caleb Tyink all work at the theater. They say they're happy to work at a place that brings people joy.

"We want to give people an experience – a wonderful one," Koopmans said. "We also want to work at being gentlemen and gentleladies and helping each other out so they can have a positive experience and we have one too."

Koopmans, who worked at the theater previously under different management, does a number of jobs and calls himself the security guard.

"He has an awesome memory. He can tell me anything that happened here," Mendoza said. "He comes and gives me reports and says well I’m making sure they’re working for you."

Masselink greets customers, makes popcorn and gets candy for them. He's quite a film buff too.

"My favorite movie? That’s a tough one. I like all the movies," he said.

Tyink says he'll do whatever it takes to help.

"You name it," he said.

"My favorites are the popcorn machine and the slushie machine. Those are my favorites. I learned how to use the soda machine and the popcorn machine and the slushie machine. Those are the three things I know so far."

Mendoza and a friend are working to start an outing for single moms or kids with different abilities. The kids can enjoy a movie while the moms participate in their own activities. They hope it will help build community.

"When my kids were growing up a lot of my other friends that I graduated with, they had other mom friends from soccer and my kids weren’t in sports so we kind of felt secluded," she said.

To find show times, visit the cinema's website.

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