Kristy Kemp is founder and principal social worker at Flash Farm, where she helps others heal through animal-assisted therapy.
When alumna Kristy Kemp (Bachelor of Human Services/Master of Social Work, 2014) was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer in 2004, she quickly needed some extra support. What she didn’t realise at the time was how influential her oncology social worker would become.
“I’d gone into hospital with a sore shoulder, but I got flown to Melbourne and told I had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. All I could think about was my kids. At the time, Will was turning four and Steph was two,” she says.
“My kids were left with my mum and dad, who didn’t know how to tell them what was going on with me. But my social worker was amazing. Throughout my recovery, she made life for me and my family so much easier.”
As Kristy’s health improved, her social worker stood by her. Then one day, she set Kristy a challenge.
My social worker said, ‘What are you going to do with yourself when you’re better?’ So I asked her, ‘What is it that you do? Because I want to do that’.
Soon after, Kristy enrolled in a combined Bachelor and postgraduate social work degree at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.
“When I was applying, I thought: ‘If I can beat cancer, then surely I can complete two degrees’.”
From cancer survivor to first year student
Starting university on the back of a health crisis is tough for anyone. But if there’s one thing that defines Kristy, it’s her determination.
“I went to La Trobe all guns blazing, thinking I could do a degree full-time in four years. My doctor advised I should do it part-time but I said, ‘No, I feel fantastic!’ I had a point to prove, because at that time everyone around me was telling me I couldn’t do things and needed to be careful,” she says.
But uni didn’t come easily to me. I’d had a big gap since high school and studying was a lot harder after cancer treatment. Because I’d had total body irradiation, my memory was really bad. I had to put sticky-notes all over my car just to remember to pick the kids up from school and hand my assignments in.
After a year of juggling full-time study, motherhood and the long-term effects of chemotherapy, Kristy dropped back to part-time hours. She credits the La Trobe Student Services team with helping her balance her assignments while taking care of her health.
“The Student Services team were amazing. They set me up with technology to make things easier. I’d lost some sensation in my fingertips during treatment, so they loaned me software and technology that allowed for speech to text. And knowing I could have a chat with someone in the team helped me feel like I wasn’t on my own.”
Discovering her therapeutic approach
After graduating, Kristy began her social work career in the education sector, before moving into mental health and then family services. She started working closely with families at a point where their children were at risk of being removed, or were being returned home.
It was through this work that Kristy began to see some really positive therapeutic impacts. Often, these happened when she and the families were ‘doing things together’.
“I remember working with a mum the first night she’d been reunited with her child, while she was cooking a meal. She shared not only her story, but also her love of cooking by giving me the recipe. It allowed us to build rapport while exchanging skills,” she reflects.
Kristy realised she’d seen similar positive impacts when people were interacting with animals. Years earlier, growing up on her family farm, her father would take her and her childhood pony, Flash, to Riding for the Disabled. Through the program, she saw people with a disability experience a sense of freedom and wellbeing from riding her horse. For Kristy, it was another example of how simple activities could help people heal.
I’d see kids hop on Flash – kids who couldn’t walk, or couldn’t see, or talk – and a universal smile would come across their face. When they were riding Flash, their disability disappeared.
In her own family, Kristy had also seen how animals could help break down barriers for her son Will, who has an Asperger’s diagnosis.
“When Will was younger, I bought him a puppy called Max. Whenever Will was feeling angry, Max would try to calm him down by getting up in his face so Will would be forced to pat him. Later, when Will wanted to teach Max to sit and stay, he had to learn to make eye contact and speak clearly, which in turn helped his social interaction with other people.”
Over time, Kristy’s passion for activity-driven therapy, along with her insights into animal-assisted approaches, drove her to develop a new service for people in the Bendigo region. Applying the research skills she’d learnt at La Trobe, Kristy analysed what was lacking and thought long and hard about what kind of service could meet those needs.
Her research revealed that, over time, a lot of services for Bendigo’s most vulnerable groups had been defunded. And so, with trademark grit, Kristy stepped out of her family services career and into a new role as founder, CEO and principal social worker at Flash Farm.
Flash Farm: a centre for animal-assisted therapy
Located 15 minutes from Bendigo in regional Victoria, Flash Farm is a purpose-built therapeutic centre named after Kristy’s childhood pony. It’s a place where people of all ages can receive animal-assisted therapy, alongside cognitive behavioural therapy and other strength-based approaches. The Farm’s motto, reflected back to Kristy by a parent, is ‘fostering love and sharing hope’.
Not only does Flash Farm provide people with practical activities – feeding animals, digging post holes – but its donkeys, chooks, cats and goats create an environment that’s accepting, sensory and conducive to conversation.
Animals don’t judge. If you’re kind to them, they’re kind to you, and what they give back is incredible. In those moments with animals, my clients are so vulnerable and innocent; they really let their guard down.
“Animals also allow a whole tactile experience. I spent this morning with a young bloke who really struggles to focus, yet by running his hands through the donkey’s coat, he could concentrate. After he’d flattened down all the donkey hair, he looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t she beautiful now?’”
“Animal behaviour also makes a great conversation starter, because it's rich with metaphors that can be applied to life. Feeding an orphaned baby lamb can prompt a talk about the responsibility of being a parent. Chooks breeding in front of teenagers can start a whole conversation around safe sex. Even animals’ body language teaches young people important social cues.
“Young people bring the topic back to themselves, connecting what they see on the farm with what’s happening in their own lives. The way animals interact provides so many metaphors you can work with, which often end up being big insights.”
While Kristy’s work on Flash Farm is extremely rewarding, it’s not without its challenges. One is navigating Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), both with her clients and as a registered provider. Another is managing the daily demands of drought.
But Kristy is hopeful for the future and excited to grow the Flash Farm team.
“I’ve brought in some volunteers and would love to get another social worker or therapist on-board who has the same passion for animals and people as I do."
Because when you’ve got a dream, you’ve got to follow it. And part of that is to surround yourself with good people who can support you with it.
One of those support people is her son Will, who’s now studying business at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus.
“He makes sure I’m not acting purely out of kindness. He tells me to put a business lens on it, too.”
Advice for budding social workers
Looking back on her own time at La Trobe, Kristy says it’s important to embrace every opportunity you can while you’re studying. She advises social work students to look for meaning in every subject, even when it may not strongly interest them.
“Sometimes you’re sitting in the middle of a class and you think ‘this isn’t relevant’ – just like I thought about the research classes I sat through. It may not be relevant then and there, but at some point in your career you’ll come back to it and be glad you listened to that message,” she says.
So, look a bit harder and find what it is you can take out. Even if that’s sitting patiently and quietly through class. Because that’s a handy skill to have as a social worker. There’s lots of times when you’ll need to just listen.
And while the amount of group work and role plays in a social work degree can be challenging, Kristy guarantees it will pay off. At Flash Farm, she says, her clients come from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and face a range of barriers, from post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues, to autism and disability.
“Studying social work, you have to come together for lots of group work. Everyone has fantastic ideas and you’re taught to look at things from different perspectives, to appreciate different points of view,” she says.
“My time at La Trobe put me in good stead for working with a broad group of people, their stories and their lives. Because ultimately, we’re all just human beings, trying to get through life the best way we can.”
Last updated: 5th July 2019