Former professional ballerina and entertainer Gemma Schofield is bringing light and life to those suffering with acute mental health conditions in the South West, all thanks to her best pal Lola, a two year on Pug cross Chihuahua therapy dog.
Having suffered from eating disorders and depression as a professional performer herself, Gemma has long been on a quest to understand mental health and to find a way of making lives better for those struggling with a range of conditions.
Having had friends and family touched by mental health challenges, she knows only too well just how many of us are affected by anxiety, fears and more acute illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
“I’ve seen the good and not so good in terms of how people are treated when they are struggling with their mental health,” says Gemma. “Many of my professional ballerina colleagues suffered from similar conditions, and that inspired me to help others experiencing mental health conditions. So many put on a happy front, but behind the scenes, it’s very different. Colleagues simply didn’t get the support that they needed. That was very sad.”
Having recently moved to Devon, Gemma was looking for a job and came across Independent Living West Country. She saw the work that they were doing and decided there and then to start giving back to make a difference, especially during Covid-19.
“So many are suffering with mental health conditions that are only just coming to the surface,” says Gemma. “Others are contending with acute conditions and find themselves barely able to cope. These are the people in most need of support.”
Compassion and understanding are key in Gemma’s role, but she also has something far more powerful that’s helping to break down barriers and transform the lives of those whom she works with; Lola, her cute and cuddly companion.
“Lola has played a big part in my journey to becoming a Support Worker. She has an amazing ability to sense those most in need and to provide an unparalleled level of comfort that instantly calms people and opens them up.
“It all started when she was a pup. She went up to a little girl in the street who was looking sad and forlorn. Lola knew something wasn’t right and nuzzled up to the girl.
“Something instantly switched on in the little girl. She brightened up and started talking to Lola. That’s when we heard a woman crying who had been watching on; the girl’s mother. She explained that her daughter was autistic and hadn’t spoken for two years. It was a very emotional moment for us both. I knew then that in Lola I had something truly special.”
From that moment on, Gemma has been training Lola as a therapy dog, taking her natural instincts and letting her work her magic with those in need. Much of her inspiration has come from Caesar Milan, a Mexican-American dog trainer whose TV series The Dog Whisperer has enabled Gemma to achieve a level of calmness in Lola that is essential when visiting anxious clients.
“We’ve focussed on rewarding settled, attentive and caring behaviour in Lola,” says Gemma. “She’ll even do funny little tricks like a high five and a dance. She stands on her hind legs and does a little turn. This helps to disarm clients and sets them instantly at ease.
“We also always make sure that we give Lola a good walk before visiting more nervous clients and we make sure that we reward her with a few of treats along the way. She’s been amazing.”
Now, Lola joins Gemma on many of her visits to clients, helping those that would otherwise struggle to lead normal lives without the support the Independent Living West Country’s team. Before she does so, Gemma always assesses the needs of her clients.
“I talk to those who we support about Lola and explain that she’s being trained as a therapy dog. I also explain how we clean her paws and coat with anti-bacteria wipes so that she’s Covid-compliant too,” says Gemma. “I show them pictures of her and ask if they’d like to meet her. Most clients love the idea and we go from there.
“We tend to use Lola with clients that can’t leave the house due to anxiety, agoraphobia, or other conditions. She provides company and unconditional affection that settles and brings clients out of their shells.
“The difference she makes is amazing. Clients who would otherwise struggle to open up suddenly become chatty, all through the confidence and calming influence that Lola gives them.
“She senses when people need affection and knows just when to jump up on to their laps. She knows when people need a hug or a distraction, and that helps to strip away their worries and defences. That enables us to get the core of issues that they are experiencing, which makes us more effective in everything we do. Lola has been transformational in helping clients on their road to independence, which lies at the heart of all that we do.”
Having a natural affection for animals, Gemma visits a lot of clients that have their own pets. Gemma’s confidence with animals is a great asset in its own right, enabling her to find common ground, instantly building relationships and trust, which vital in her work.
In addition to providing companionship, aided by Lola, Gemma’s main role is helping Independent Living West Country’s clients with everything from trips out to providing support with their shopping, cleaning, keeping on top of paperwork or providing support with their benefits.
“It’s a wonderful job, and that’s all down to the approach that we take,” says Gemma. “Our support is focussed entirely on the needs of the individual. We provide assistance that is tailored to each client and their place on their journey to independence.
“I’ll work with anything up to 15 clients in a week. Some require minimal help, whereas others need more intense assistance, such as one lady who I visit for 5 hours each day, reminding her to eat and helping her with the basics to keep on top of daily life. Others just need assistance with their shopping.”
Looking to the future, Gemma plans to keep going with the training, which will soon include a further four-pawed friend as Gemma’s colleague Sam Ford has recently bought a puppy. She plans to train her as a therapy dog too, working with Gemma and Lola to learn the tricks of the trade.
If you would like to find out how Independent Living West Country can help you, a friend, family, client or patient, do please get in contact.
Working with private clients as well as those supported by the DWP and Devon County Council (DCC), we create tailored packages informed and approved by DCC Support Workers where appropriate. Designed to meet the precise needs of each individual, our packages of support are always built to help our clients on their journey towards greater independence.
You can find out more about our range of services here or simply call one of the team on 01392 467007.