Former Holland Bloorview social worker Stephanie Willison (now Deaken) has an unusual work partner.
She’s a 10-month old black pig with white fur stockings.
“Penelope” is a therapy pig on Stephanie’s therapeutic farm located in Mono, Ont.
Stephanie and her husband Darryl purchased the farm to offer programs to children and young adults with a variety of disabilities and their families. BLOOM interviewed Stephanie about Fiddlehead Care Farm, which is named for the fiddlehead plants that cover the property.
BLOOM: What was your role at Holland Bloorview?
Stephanie Willison: I worked with children and families as a social worker on our inpatient complex continuing care unit as well as with the brain injury rehab team and the child development program serving families with children with autism.
BLOOM: How did you initially get interested in working with kids with disabilities?
Stephanie Willison: My older sister Rhonda has Down syndrome, so I’ve worked with people with special needs since I was really little. At a young age I was a babysitter for children with special needs and before Holland Bloorview I worked as a deaf-blind intervenor.
BLOOM: What was it like to have an older sister with a disability?
Stephanie Willison: Overall it was extremely positive. My sister is such a positive, happy person. She was involved in Special Olympics and was a world champion figure skater, so we were always going to events and involved in the special-needs community. As a sibling you learn things like acceptance and maturity a lot faster.
BLOOM: Was there anything you struggled with?
Stephanie Willison: As my sister got older my brother and I went away to university and she was like ‘What about me? What do I get to do?’ I think my parents had pictured building a suite in the house and having Rhonda live there forever, but she didn’t want to. So they found her a group home placement in Collingwood and she works in a daycare and is very happy there. But seeing her move away from us, and always worrying about whether she’s going to be okay, is stressful. Even though she’s my older sister, I always had a protective role with her.
BLOOM: What is Fiddlehead Care Farm?
Stephanie Willison: Care farming is something that’s quite popular in Europe. It’s the use of farming and the outdoors for therapeutic purposes—for promoting physical or mental health and overall wellbeing. It’s a combination of what could be called horticultural therapy, or gardening, and animal-assisted therapy. Being outside with the farm animals and in the garden is therapeutic for the mind, body and soul.
BLOOM: Who is the farm targeted to?
Stephanie Willison: Children and young adults with a variety of disabilities and mental-health needs.
BLOOM: What programs do you offer?
Stephanie Willison: I offer individual counselling for children and their families. That includes nature-assisted therapy and animal-assisted therapy with Penelope, who’s our therapeutic pig. We’re usually outside and what we do is activity-based or play-based. We may do different games, work in the garden, or go on nature trails for talk therapy, but while we’re talking we’re in the woods.
We want to offer a school program for special-needs classrooms tailored to whatever the teacher wants. It could be a farm-to table program that teaches where our food comes from and healthy eating, or a program that involves nature or our animals.
I have a background in brain injury and family intervention and the Triple P parenting programs so whatever parents and families and classrooms want, I want to be able to provide that.
BLOOM: What about young adults with disabilities?
Stephanie Willison: We’re thinking about work placements where they could work in the garden or feed Penelope or maintain some of the trails or plants. We’re also open to having an adult come to the farm with a care worker to work on life skills.
BLOOM: Are you farmers?
Stephanie Willison: My husband Darryl is a farmer. He grew up on a dairy farm. I’ve always worked with people with special needs and for many years we talked about combining our passions and having some type of farm for kids and adults with special needs.
We came across the idea of care farming and spent over a year looking for properties. This one, which was a therapeutic riding centre, magically came up. It’s built for horses and we have a stable and a whole inside riding arena that is fully accessible. We don’t have horses yet and probably won’t get into that for a few years.
We raise organic chickens and taught the kids that some are for eggs and some for meat. We have cows here from Darryl’s family farm. Other than that we harvest the land and we have lots of vegetables and organic hay.
BLOOM: What was it like to move from a hospital setting to a rural setting?
Stephanie Willison: It’s been amazing. I was able to build all of this while I was on maternity leave with my son Brady, who is one. It’s nice to be in an area where he can grow up and around nature.
BLOOM: What’s been the biggest challenge?
Stephanie Willison: It’s a much-needed service and when I talk to people they’re very excited about it and word-of-mouth is getting out. But for people to take the next step and make an appointment or come out to visit has been very limited. Right now I have three clients, which I’m happy with. But I have to figure out how to help families have the time and energy and courage to make that call to say we need help.
BLOOM: Where are you located?
Stephanie Willison: We’re about 15 minutes north of Orangeville. So from downtown Toronto, or Holland Bloorview, it’s an hour for sure.
BLOOM: What are some of the benefits you see from working with children in nature and with animals?
Stephanie Willison: For some kids there’s a sort of magic in being around animals. They feel comforted and they feel okay about talking about things that they might not otherwise. For example, at our open house a mom and three boys came. The parents are going through a tough divorce. We sat down outside and I introduced Penelope and she was walking around us. They began petting her. One of the boys spontaneously started talking about his dad and the mom’s jaw just dropped. She listened, and Penelope listened, and the mom said “he’s never said anything like that to me or anyone.”
I read Last Child in the Woods, and the whole concept is how kids need to be taught to play outside again and how to have free exploration: ‘There’s the woods, go and play.’ They don’t know how to do that anymore because they only have structured activities.
So having the space for children and families to explore together—whether it’s picking up leaves or picking blackberries—brings people together.
To learn more, call Stephanie at 647-624-8421 or visit Fiddlehead.