A local carer who has been shielding her severely disabled son throughout the pandemic has been inundated with orders after launching a sensory box business, thanks to support from the Go For It Programme in association with Newry, Mourne and Down Council.
The Go For It Programme is part funded by Invest Northern Ireland and the European Regional Development Fund under the Investment for Growth and Jobs Northern Ireland (2014-2020) programme.
Louise Gartland (37), from Drumaness, has been shielding with her two boys aged 2 and 4 since March 2020, because Riley, her eldest, is severely disabled and requires 24/7 care.
While carers come in to help with wheelchair user Riley, Louise says she found life difficult after shielding started as she became so isolated.
“I would already have been isolated with Riley being so vulnerable to illness and as soon as lockdown happened that was an additional isolation for me,” she says.
“Because I wasn’t able to go out at all, it had a detrimental effect on my mental health and that affected the whole family too. So I started to think about what I could do and this is where the business came from.”
After 20 years of working with adults with learning disabilities, Louise came up with the idea of creating sensory boxes filled with all sorts of stimulating items and tailored to each child’s individual sensory needs – and that’s how Louise’s Sensory Boxes came about.
“Riley is registered blind and is deaf, so he needs a lot of sensory input. I came up with the idea of providing affordable sensory toys and products for children who need them,” Louise says.
“As a special needs mum, I find that if you go online to find sensory toys, they are hugely expensive.
“I’ve spent four years buying stuff for Riley and I have a good idea of the things that you wouldn’t necessarily buy as a sensory product, but that will provide a similar sensory experience.
“I tailor my boxes to the child and find out about their sensory needs to determine what type of things would help them, such tactile items or fidget stuff to help with concentration and children who are hyperactive, or visually stimulating items such as light-up toys, calming products or growing products for a darkened room. There are so many sensory needs out there.”
Louise sells mostly through her Facebook page and word of mouth recommendations.
“I put up a post on Shop Ireland and I wasn’t really expecting the numbers of responses that I got. In the run-up to Christmas I had 285 orders. I had to turn people away,” she says.
The support of the Go For It programme was a key part of the impetus to get the business up and running.
The programme is delivered free of charge by a team of experienced business mentors through Northern Ireland’s wide network of enterprise agencies and provides expert advice and help with developing a robust business plan to help turn ideas into a commercial enterprise.
Louise joined the Go For It scheme through Down Business Centre and was able to access training.
“It gave me the expertise in what to concentrate on first – I went and saw the accountant and got registered,” she says.
“I was a bit apprehensive because I had absolutely no business experience, just a good idea. But the project gave me the reassurance that it was a good idea and we have put together a business plan.
“Joan O’Hara has helped me massively throughout the last few months and continues to be available for guidance should I need it, or would recommend the best people to talk to in the subject I need”
More recently, Louise has got her mum involved, branching out into making tactile and fidget cushions which are suitable for dementia patients and people with ADHD, autism and anxiety.
“I really do wonder, from I made my first box until now, how did I come this far?” she says.
Councillor Laura Devlin, Chairperson, Newry, Mourne & Down District Council said: “The Go For It Programme, delivered by Newry, Mourne & Down District Council, provides new entrepreneurs with accessible, free and tailored support in the start-up stage of their business in areas such as financial and business planning, and sales and marketing to help get their business up and running.
“I wish Louise every continued success in developing and growing her enterprise and encourage anyone thinking about starting their own business to get in touch with the Go For It Programme!”
Joan O’Hara, Business Advisor, Down Business Centre said “We were delighted to be able to support Louise in the start-up stage of her business. Louise had an idea for a business was very personal to her and something she was extremely passionate about sharing with other parents.
“We helped Louise develop a business plan that gave her the confidence and know-how to bring that idea to the market. We worked with Louise to develop a business plan that focused her on defining her products, financial forecasting, as well as helping her tap into social media marketing opportunities for generating sales.
“It’s great to see Louise doing so well with a product that will undoubtedly support a child’s development through ‘sensory play’.”
If you have a business idea you’d like to develop or if you are thinking about starting a business contact the Go For It Programme on 0800 027 0639 or visit: www.goforitni.com