Virgin StartUp regularly supports businesses that embody Virgin Unite’s ethos of championing people, planet and profit.
The team support and grow entrepreneurs – both financially and through mentoring – and have helped hundreds of ideas flourish into successful and sustainable businesses.
This week we’re sharing the story of Lucy-Jayne Wheeler, a Virgin StartUp entrepreneur, who’s harnessing the therapeutic power of animals to help people relax and learn new skills. Lucy-Jayne recently spoke to us about her business, Serenity Farm Project, her passion for helping young people, and what’s so special about creating amazing spaces and places.
Tell us about your background and what inspired you to start a business
I’ve spent the last 17 years working in education as a teacher, trainer and education manager. For the last 10 years I’ve worked closely with young people who display challenging behaviours and learning disabilities. My interests and passions beyond education have always been animals – particularly horses and dogs – I have always had pets and spend my free time walking and riding.
A couple of years ago I became interested in equine facilitated learning – the concept that peoples’ lives can be positively influenced and permanently changed by spending time with horses – and attended some training about it. The training convinced me that many people from where I worked would really benefit from a facility where they could be around animals, the environment, and around daily purposeful activities.
I did some research around my community and this confirmed that there was a lack of facilities for young people with learning disabilities following on from college – and that some placements were breaking down because the environments were unsuitable for their needs – this was especially frustrating considering the skills that had been carefully developed at college. I went to visit places that were offering animal centred services and it was a joy. All of these factors came together and that is how my Serenity Farm project started.
Tell us about the Serenity Farm project
Serenity Farm offers a selection of ‘care farm activities’ to anyone who wants to attend. Daily activities revolve around the needs and jobs of the farm, the animals, and they include horticulture and craft-based elements. My farm is still in its early days and I plan to deliver more offerings in time. I want to work more on equine facilitated learning and deliver tailored sessions to individuals with the horses. I also plan to sell produce and eggs grown on the farm. And maybe, in time, open a small café to show off the glorious views.
The emphasis of these activities is on life-long learning and increasing independence, confidence and communication, and on helping people manage their anxieties. So whilst the structure and routine of the farm is therapeutic, we are also looking to challenge people and increase their skills. This in turn will help participants feel pride and confidence and open up more opportunities for them.
How does the farm make an impact on people and the planet?
The farm makes a massive impact for people in Stoke on Trent, as it is the only facility allowing people to attend daily environmental based services and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of being with animals. Attendees are welcomed to a stunning location on Wetley Moor as they practice new skills in farming, increase their confidence and independence, and make new friends.
The animals benefit from all the attention and they learn new skills from their human attendees. In return the teach people how to manage anxieties and improve body language and communication. The carers and parents who attend – or do drop-off runs – always enjoy a stroll around, and everyone smiles when they see the goats on the trampoline, and the pigs running with the dogs!
When I have developed the garden further and purchased more trees and poly-tunnels we will be planting and growing a garden that will encourage birds, butterflies and bees. We will also be looking to sell home grown produce from the gardens to produce funds to further develop the farm.
How did you hear about Virgin StartUp and what impact has it made on your business journey?
I heard about the StartUp loan from Business Enterprise Centre. Their support has enabled me to rent the farm where I now run the project. The loan has helped me pay for electricity, water, a toilet, drains and clearing away a dangerous slurry-pit.
Can you share anything about the space and place that is Serenity Farm project?
It’s an amazing place that is a complete joy to see. Many people in the surrounding area didn’t know Wetley Moor existed before the business started and they’re all in love with the beautiful views. The animals are free-range, so people get to interact closely with horses, ponies, goats, pigs, dogs and chickens – they really do enjoy seeing them play in a natural environment.
The sensory garden is still in its early stages and when finished it will be a thriving wildlife haven, where people can relax and enjoy nature. And if that’s not for them, they can also get stuck in and help with the gardening!