Sarah McPherson runs Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing, a social enterprise which provides mood-boosting visits to care homes and other settings. Here she explains why they have become so important to everyone’s wellbeing, including her own
Pixie likes nothing more than nestling her head on your chest and having a tickle behind the ears. Pippin likes to lay her head over your shoulder and nestle into your neck. And young Jack, who was born on August 1, likes nothing more than being a naughty little boy. Well, he is the baby of the group, as well as the only boy!
These are just a few of the MiniDonks, a social enterprise which provides visits to care homes and other settings. Also in the yard, enjoying the winter sun, are Millie, Saffron (Pippin’s mum), and Bo Beep (mum to both Pixie and Millie).
The founder is Sarah McPherson, whose love affair with miniature donkeys began around her 50th birthday – she’s now 57. After one of the family dogs sadly passed away, she and her partner Richard were on holiday in Derbyshire when they went to look at some puppies and there just so happened to be two mini donkeys there as well. The upshot? Miniature donkeys Saffy and Bo-Beep were welcomed into the family.
So how did taking on two donkeys as family pets turn into a social enterprise? ‘My mum was quite far advanced with dementia,’ says Sarah. ‘She used to love coming and sitting in the yard with the donkeys. She got a lot out of it. When her dementia progressed, she started reminiscing about being evacuated in the war and her time spent on a farm.’
Sarah continues: ‘My dad was diagnosed with dementia as well. It was very difficult – he couldn’t care for my mum.’ Her parents were living in Leicester at the time. ‘I was spending half the time in Leicester and half the time here. For about four months I was split between the two. I had to find a nursing home for them.’ Sarah moved her parents to Norfolk, to a nursing home up the road.’
It then got to the point where Sarah’s mum wasn’t really able to visit the donkeys anymore, ‘so I asked the care home if I could take them,’ she recalls. Whilst there, the manager said ‘there’s a lady in room 10 – do you think they will go indoors?’ The donkeys did go indoors, and ‘the lady loved it – everybody loved it,’ says Sarah, who has previously worked in mental health advocacy and support work.
Sarah’s mum passed away in April of 2017. ‘At the wake I announced to my friends and family that I was quitting my job. I made a drunken phone call to the Royal Norfolk Show, asking ‘can you tell me how I get a stand for next year?’ She was then offered a stand for that year! ‘It was like everything was lined up – everything was meant to be.
‘I then had six weeks to get everything legally constituted, get a bank account and get leaflets.’ Friends lent her a gazebo for the show. And Sarah adds: ‘My partner is a mechanic – he lent me his van – he thought I’d only be out once or twice a week.’
The MiniDonks first big outing was to Woolly Weekend, organised by the Worstead Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dryers, just before the Royal Norfolk Show. Sarah met someone who worked for the South Norfolk Clinical Commissioning Group, which oversees 80 care homes. Once an email had been sent round the network, Sarah recalls: ‘The phone started ringing and it didn’t stop. From thinking we’d be out once or twice a week we were flat out.’
Sarah then started fundraising for the MiniDonks lorry, taking delivery of it two years ago this month. It was a game changer, all six of her donkeys can be transported safely in it. ‘We love our lorry,’ says Sarah.
MiniDonks wouldn’t be where it is today without a loyal team of volunteers, including Steph, who has two mini donkeys which are part of the herd now. Sarah says: ‘The donkeys are really, really important but so are the volunteers – I couldn’t do a visit on my own. From day one we’ve had the right people come to us as volunteers.’
The donkeys had become accustomed to visiting care homes, hospitals, psychiatric units, dementia groups, special schools, youth groups, autism groups and more. Sarah has so many positive stories. ‘One lady, on a very early visit, didn’t take her eyes off the donkeys the whole time. It turns out she used to breed and show goats her whole life.
‘One chap with acquired brain injury, would reach out with his hand, if you walked a donkey past him. Then there’s the lady with cerebral palsy in a Leonard Cheshire Home. ‘When she sees the donkeys she almost shakes herself out of bed. She and Pippin and Pixie have a big shaky donkey cuddle.’
More than 350 visits have taken place across Norfolk and Suffolk since MiniDonks’ foundation and for many venues, ‘donkey day’ has become something to really look forward to.
Then 2020 came along. It’s been quite a year for Sarah, as it has for so many of us. Her dad, who had vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, passed away in January this year. And then lockdown happened.
‘Pre-Covid, we were out between four and six times a week.’ Since the first lockdown, all visits have been suspended, due to Covid restrictions, and apprentice Holly Ireson has only recently come back one day a week, after being furloughed.
But thanks to funding from the Coronavirus Community Support Fund, distributed by The National Lottery Community Fund, more than 500 MiniDonk themed activity packs have been distributed to care homes completely free of charge.
And the donkeys have kept Sarah and her team busy, of course. ‘We walk the donkeys as much as we can. They have their own stables with 24-hour access – donkeys aren’t waterproof in the same way horses are.’
MiniDonks relies on selling merchandise, such as cards and calendars, mirrors and mugs; donations (South Norfolk District Council has been a big support) and sponsorship – you can sponsor a donkey for £35 a year. Sarah has been touched by people’s generosity. One couple offered to pay an £800 vets’ bill.
And MiniDonks is a worthy cause. Sarah says: ‘I don’t describe what we do as therapy – it’s wellbeing.’ The donkeys have also helped Sarah’s own wellbeing, as she says: ‘I’ve had my own struggles – trying to look after my parents caused me a lot of anxiety and stress and I’ve been living with depression on and off. If I feel myself getting low, I come and spend time with them or take Pippin for a walk.’ Although she shouldn’t really have favourites, Sarah has a soft spot for Pippin, as the first born. ‘She will suck on my hand and it will put her in a trance.’ She adds: ‘You get different things from each of them. They are just really, really nice to be around.’
And she has her eye on the future. ‘My ultimate dream is to have a mini donkey sanctuary – somewhere disability-friendly, with enough space, a classroom and toilet facilities.’ Although she adds: ‘I never want to run any sort of visitor attraction. This time on the yard is precious to us.’ However, these things cost money. ‘That’s my dream but I’m three-quarters of a million short of that.’
‘At the moment what we do really well is the outreach. If you’re in a care home and in bed you NEED to see a donkey. We can’t wait to be back out there and visiting.’ And there is potentially good news for next year. ‘Pippin MIGHT be pregnant!’