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Iceni Magazine | May 11, 2021

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Lockdown success for MiniDonks apprentice

MiniDonks apprentice

A Norfolk-based social enterprise is celebrating the achievements of its first ever apprentice.

Despite the global pandemic, Hollie Ireson – who works at Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing – has successfully completed her apprenticeship in business administration, achieving a level 2 diploma.

Hollie, who is now 19, began volunteering at Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing in 2018.  The social enterprise delivers therapeutic, mood-boosting miniature donkey visits to care homes, dementia groups, special schools and a variety of other settings across East Anglia.

After initially studying childcare, in 2019 Hollie was given the opportunity by the managing director of Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing, Sarah McPherson, to have a complete change of career direction which she gladly accepted.

“I’ve always suffered from a lack of confidence and social anxiety, but spending time with the mini donkeys and other volunteers really helped,” explains Hollie.  “Donkeys are good for everyone’s wellbeing because they are very affectionate and don’t judge.  Being able to develop my business administration skills whilst also spending time with the donkeys, volunteers and supporting the social enterprise was the perfect job for me.”

Cheryl Freestone is Hollie’s assessor and trainer at City College Norwich: “I am hugely proud of Hollie for successfully completing her apprenticeship during the past year. Covid-19 changed everything for our apprentices, their employers and for us.  We all had to adapt quickly, finding new ways of communication and assessing progress.

“Within the Business Administration Level 2 qualification there are a number of mandatory units, such as communication and email management, but these are complemented by units which are particularly relevant to the apprentice’s work setting, such as events and publicity and collating data,” continues Cheryl. “Prior to the pandemic, much of Hollie’s work was about planning diaries and donkey visits but these had to be stopped last March.  So instead, Sarah and Hollie began working on a project to make MiniDonks activity packs available to care homes throughout Norfolk. So, despite being temporarily furloughed, Hollie was able to demonstrate a new range of skills and continue to build the portfolio of work needed to achieve her qualification.”

“I am amazed by the positivity shown by employers such as Sarah at MiniDonks,” says Cheryl. “Whilst things were incredibly tough for the social enterprise because they were unable to deliver visits and generate income, Sarah continued to support Hollie through her apprenticeship and find new and engaging ways for her to develop her competencies.  Not only has Hollie gained essential business administration skills she has become far more confident and resilient as a result of her apprenticeship and the mentoring of her employer.  Apprenticeships such as this really bring out the best in people: they are designed to facilitate success and allow the individual to shine.”

Hollie Ireson

Hollie Ireson

Now that Hollie has completed her apprenticeship, the plan is for her to stay on at Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing in a part-time role.

“Taking on an apprentice was a big deal for a small social enterprise, but we decided that investing in an individual was a far better option than buying in admin services,” explains Sarah McPherson, the founder and managing director of Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing.  “The team at City College Norwich were really helpful and Hollie made a really good start to her apprenticeship: she soon became a whizz with data entry, producing invoices, diary management and volunteer allocation. Her college work complemented the work she was doing day to day.

“After Covid hit, our day-to-day business of delivering wellbeing visits with the donkeys disappeared overnight.  Learning went online and Hollie was furloughed, or part-furloughed, for much of the following year. Through it all we kept in touch. We had some crazy days of getting 500 activity packs out to care homes and then 300 more Christmas packs.  With the support of Cheryl, and through her own hard work, Hollie got through the lockdowns, carried on with her college work and we are delighted to say that she passed her apprenticeship with flying colours. Thanks to the apprenticeship, Hollie has a job, and we have an excellent, well trained and qualified employee.  We can’t wait to be out and about with the donkeys, visiting again.”

Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing Ltd (Minidonks) is a social enterprise (not for profit) that provides therapeutic visits by miniature donkeys to people in a wide range of settings. They take their donkeys to care homes, hospitals, psychiatric units, dementia groups, special schools, youth groups, autism groups and more. They have delivered nearly 400 visits across Norfolk and Suffolk since their foundation. The motivation for setting up, the enterprise was the founder’s experience of both her parents developing dementia and benefiting from interacting with the donkeys.


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