How disappointment in employment outcomes and a passion for autism awareness has led to a new essential retail shop setting up to support vulnerable people South Gloucestershire during the Covid19 pandemic
Lucy and Rich Smith have been running a shop since March in Stoke Gifford Retirement Village, an apartment complex designed for community living for the older generation.
This shop is now considered an essential service for the residents as they self isolate during the pandemic – many simply can’t get out for food and supplies and many rely on the dedicated care team at Extracare for all of their support.
Lucy and Rich didn’t start out with this idea in mind but have risen to the challenges faced during the coronavirus crisis.
Lucy tells us the story behind how Your Village Shop began…
A shared experience in education
In mid 2018 I began talking to a friend who is a director of an organisation that wanted to create a new approach to supporting young people and young adults on the autistic spectrum to succeed in the work place.
This organisation is Northen Surveying Services, a small, successful, family owned company that provides what the name says… surveying services. That friend is Tara Northen. The conversation began on Facebook through a shared experience that both our children had recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition and we were frustrated with the lack of educational provision, particularly for autistic girls. Both of us were experiencing challenges and couldn’t see positive outcomes for our children.
Those conversations continued throughout 2019 and became a project called Munro Basecamp. Tara and Alan, the directors at NSS recognised that they needed to grow and could see that recruiting talented young surveyors was challenging for them as a small business competing with much bigger organisations. Both Tara and Alan were interested in looking at how to attract, recruit and retain staff who think differently and have great potential – namely autistic and neurodivergent individuals.
Developing innovative ideas with academics
In developing the Munro Project, we were lucky enough to work with a great team of post graduate students at the University of Bristol from the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CFIE). The teams took on a challenge based project to develop solutions to improving employment outcomes for autistic young people.
The students at the CFIE encouraged us to think critically about our own ideas and presented some brilliant ideas – from inclusive on boarding apps to a programme for students to gain work experience with mentors and out of school activities created specifically for autistic students.
I continued to work with NSS to progress these ideas into a feasible project for their organisation and in January 2020 I presented to the directors a number of options for them to progress as part of their talent own development programme in construction that met their own philanthropic and social values.
One of those options was to invest in a new organisation that could be an income generating and provide a safe environment for young people to experience work with a supportive programme to help with some of the biggest challenges that many autistic young people face – namely anxiety, social communication, executive function and sensory processing.
We had looked at similar programmes in the UK and overseas – the ICAN organisation in Australia was one and another was a mentoring and tutor network in USA that had store fronts that supported a whole range of educational activities. We could see potential in such programmes here.
What does this have to do with a retirement village?
Throughout all this time I was delivering training from The Curly Hair Project – a social enterprise that supports people on the autistic spectrum, their families and those that live, love and work with them. One of the venues I use to deliver training is Extracare’s Stoke Gifford Retirement Village and in November 2019 I saw that the shop in the village was closing. Mmmm, I thought, what a fantastic environment for work experience – safe, secure but with lots of opportunities for social interaction in an understanding community.
In January I saw that the village was looking for a new tenant for the shop. So, I approached them with the seed of an idea about a social enterprise to run the shop. I asked my husband, Rich to work with me and we set up a company called Inclusive Change Ltd to develop this. I actually asked Rich to be involved to hold me back as I know I can get a bit carried away.
Business planning when things are “business as normal”
After a couple of weeks Rich and I had persuaded the team at Extracare that we were a good bet and we signed heads of terms.
THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF A PANDEMIC…
We had 6 weeks to set up a new shop, we knew we wanted to establish our work experience project but first things first we needed to set up a shop together.
THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF A PANDEMIC…
We signed up for a local wholesaler cash and carry, we investigated the technology we needed for point of sale, we began applying for accounts with suppliers, we started to advertise for team members.
We were doing all the right things, market research with the residents of the village, talking to the community in the area, getting great feedback from many. We were talking to mentors, other professionals and local businesses. We knew we were doing the right thing.
We had a name, Your Village Shop, we bought the domain, the email address and we set up social media but we kept it all low key.
AND THEN… CORONAVIRUS BECAME A REALITY IN THE UK
We began to hear news about Covid19, it was likely that it would spread to the UK, we began to think that our shop was no longer viable.
We spoke regularly to Extracare and were prepared to shelve the whole idea for months. Every day brought news and each day we were holding back our preparations. On Monday 16th March we heard that the amenities in the village were going to be impacted, the hairdresser, the beauty salon, the gym, the library were all having to shut their doors.
Can you set up in 48 hours?
THEN… on March 18th we were asked if we would be prepared to open up within… TWO DAYS! As the village was set to shut their doors to the public and as a whole generation were being asked to shield themselves by self isolating it was clear that things were about to become very very different at the village.
This wasn’t part of our plan. We didn’t know what was going to happen and each day we were trying to make sense of the news about Covid19. Rich is newly self employed as Holdfast Handyman and while he was having great success it was clear that his work was going to be impacted.
We had a lot to think about, the shop was meant to have a social impact, we were going to employ people to work with us. We had a business plan, with projections, with vision and objectives, you know all the things you do when you are setting up a new business.
Setting up an emergency shop managed and staffed by just Rich and I where we couldn’t open the doors to the public, wasn’t part of the business plan. So could we actually do this?
We weighed up the options, considered the challenge and said YES.
On Saturday 21st March we opened the doors to Your Village Shop.