Flash still helping children and one amazing woman to shine
BURIED in a paddock a few kilometres north of Bendigo is a pony called Flash.
By the time Kristy Kemp, the fifth child in a line-up of seven was old enough to ride, he knew what kids were about and was a rock-solid mount for the little girl who was not much older than a toddler when she first climbed aboard. By age six, she and Flash were regulars helping at Riding for Disabled with her dad, Charlie.
“These little kids who couldn't walk, couldn't talk, couldn't see would hop up there on Flash and their whole life would light up – there was no more disability,” Kristy explains. “That was probably where I got my first taste of how important animals are.”
According to Kristy, Flash’s defining characteristic was that he would never give up. He lived to 28 and she can still remember the date of when her family had to make the hard decision to put him to sleep when his health began to fail.
His final resting place is on the family farm where Kristy grew up and now operates an animal therapy business she has called Flash Farm. The name is not only symbolic of the contribution the pony made to the lives of disabled children, but is also a quiet nod to Kristy’s own story and fighting spirit in the face of near insurmountable odds.
Kristy was 23, nine weeks’ pregnant and had two children under four when she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia on Valentine’s Day 2004.
She had presented at the emergency department 24 hours’ earlier with excruciating pain in her shoulder thinking she had pulled a muscle. After a barrage of tests it was discovered her spleen was 10 times bigger than it should have been and that she had a form of leukaemia.
“The doctor said ‘we can’t tell you what type it is yet but you have blast cells in your blood and we are flying you to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’,” Kristy recalls.
“The next thing she said was ‘where is your husband because you have a really difficult decision that you need to make’.
“The doctor explained that if I chose to continue with the pregnancy I would die before it progressed much further, or I could terminate the pregnancy so I could have treatment.
“That was a pretty hard choice to make. I had two little children – they were three and two at the time. For me it seemed like a selfish option to put an unborn baby ahead of two kids who need a mum. I chose to have the chemotherapy.”
Kristy went into remission quite quickly but was told that the chances of the cancer returning were extremely high without a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately a match was found in her younger brother, Shaun.
On May 11, 2005, after just over a year of treatment – during which her husband left her – Kristy had the transplant that saved her life. It was her son’s fifth birthday. The family celebrated with a cake in her room at Royal Melbourne Hospital before she was wheeled away to the operating theatre.
“What are you going to do when you beat this thing?”
It was a question Kristy hadn’t thought about until the social worker who had been at her side for much of her cancer journey asked one day during her recovery.
“This was a woman who, while I was in the fight of my life, was helping me to raise my children from a hospital room. She arranged support for my parents to help tell my kids what was happening to me, bought birthday presents when I couldn’t, organised a phone with a screen in my room so I could read them bed-time stories … she was amazing.
“I said, ‘I want to do what you do’.”
Even while completing her Bachelor of Social Work at La Trobe University, Kristy was talking about setting up an animal therapy farm. She wanted children to have a taste of her own experiences on the same land where she and siblings grew up milking cows, riding horses and ferreting down the creek. But there was another reason gnawing away at her that was even closer to home – an angry little boy she just didn’t know how to be a mother to.
“I had a son I couldn’t understand until, at nine, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome,” she said.
“We were told we needed to work on his social skills so we bought him a puppy and it was lovely seeing the interaction between them. When he got older, he developed an interest in cattle through my father and brother. He saved up and bought his own calf and began showing it – this was a kid who didn’t want to talk to people.”
Kristy finished her degree in 2013 but it wasn’t until 2018 after working for a number of welfare organisations that she bit the bullet, quit her fulltime job and started setting up Flash Farm.
Her aim was create a tranquil setting where young people could undertake educational activities to improve their social, emotional and cognitive abilities. Through her work and experiences with her own son she knew there were children and teenagers in the Bendigo region who were struggling to fit in to the traditional education system and that there was very little on offer in the way of help.
In the first 12 months she was operating, 40 participants aged four to 19 came through Flash Farm, with Kristy working with them individually or in groups capped at six one day a week.
That has now expanded to 50 sessions a week for both groups and individuals.
The reasons they come are varied – some have been referred by schools because of disruptive behaviour but there are also private clients who have sought help because their children are so anxious they can’t even get them through the school gate.
Many of the clients are on the autism spectrum or have attention disorders.
Kristy has carefully selected the animals for their temperaments as well as their stories, which she uses to help kids connect. Rescues particularly resonate with children in out-of-home care, she says.
Painstakingly planned programs were “thrown out the window” very early on in preference of a more organic process based on each child’s needs.
“The kids are the experts,” she says. “I try to meet with every child that comes in here before they join one of the groups and I listen to what they want and where they are feeling they are not being heard. I listen to the parents as well – parents are pretty good – but the kids have got a better story. The parents can't change the kids – the kids are the ones who are going to take this away.”
With a few years of operation at Flash Farm now under her belt, Kristy has no regrets about the direction her life has taken.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” she says.
“We had a girl out here whose family was getting calls from her school about her behaviour three times a day. After she’d been here for a term her grandmother came out to speak to me.
“She said ‘I don’t know what you do or how you do it but you have changed our world – we used to just sit waiting for the next call wondering what it would be this time but we’ve only had one call for the entire term’.
“That resonated with me because I used to be that mum.
“It’s amazing to see animals, dirt and all this stuff come together – it gives these kids a sense of innocence again and helps them to understand who they are.”
LEON SCHOOTS GALLERY
This story was originally published in Bendigo Magazine