Mental health champion speaks about beloved family dog’s vital role helping children with special educational needs

Posted by james brindle | Published: 15/09/2020

A mental health champion at Central England Co-op’s Leicester distribution hub has spoken about his beloved family dog’s new role supporting children with special educational needs.

Steve Johnson has worked for the retailer for over 30 years starting his career as a butcher with the Society but spending the majority of his three decades working in distribution, most recently at its Chilled Distribution Centre (CDC) in Glenfield.

Through personal experience within his own family, he has real compassion for people struggling with mental health issues and channelled that passion into being a member of Central England Co-op’s Mental Health Working Party, taking on the role of mental health champion across the retailer’s distribution hubs.

He has now spoken about how this passion for helping people has led to his eight-year-old black Labrador Harley taken on his own role supporting people in need, as an Emotional Support Dog for children with special educational needs such as severe autism.

Steve, from Anstey, said: “My wife Lou works at Wolfdale School in Anstey which is a school for children and young people who have additional needs such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and social, emotional, and mental health needs. Last year we started taking Harley in for the odd day and he would go out for a walk with the kids around fields by the school.

“The children loved it and it really encouraged them to engage and to help them feel comfortable going out into the community, so we decided with the school to make it official and for him to become an Emotional Support Dog.

“We are just waiting for the documentation to come through and his official harness and certificate, but he has started at the school this term and even has his own timetable.

“Harley is as soft as the day is long and has such a great temperament. He is so loving, and he just likes being around people and getting attention. It is lovely to see how he supports the children to open up.”

Deputy Head of Wolfdale School Kirsten Gibson explained how Harley is helping the children and how grateful they are for Steve and his family’s support.

She said: “Our children at Wolfdale School often find social interactions, working in a groups, trying new things and change incredibly difficult which in turn can cause our children and young people to feel anxious and withdraw. This is where Harley our emotional support dog comes to the rescue!

“Harley has been part of Wolfdale School for some time now, in supporting our children to understand their emotional and physical needs.

“Harley has been visiting school on a regular basis, so children can walk him, pet him and of course give him a few deserved treats, and in turn Harley has made our children feel safe and he helps with their development of social and communication skills, responsibility, care and compassion. Our children are relaxed and happier with Harley being around.

“We are so proud of Harley in officially becoming an emotional support dog, and we cannot thank him or his owners Lou and Steve enough for being part of our Wolfdale family.”

Steve, who has two grown up daughters, one of whom works in mental health, said he has been proud to use the insight he has gained from his family to support others within the distribution team at Central England Co-op.

He said: “I have had my eyes opened to what people go through by being a mental health champion and I am glad if I have been able to offer support, even if it is just being there to listen.

“It has in turn helped me to be more supportive and understanding to those in my personal life who have had struggles, so it has been such a rewarding role.”


Notes to editors

About Central England Co-operative

Central England Co-operative is one of the largest independent retail co-operative societies in the UK with interests in food, funeral, floral and property investment.

Co-operatives have always been there for their communities; they were formed to protect them and help them flourish.  

Our 7,900 colleagues who serve Members and customers work hard to ensure that co-operative values, principles and spirit flow through everything we do to help support and improve our local communities.

Owned by hundreds of thousands of Members, we have over 430 trading outlets across 16 counties including West Midlands, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. 

We are proud of our reputation for ethical business practices and corporate responsibility.

We invest a percentage of our trading profit into local communities through our Community Dividend Fund scheme, have donated over £1.3 million to our corporate charity partner Dementia UK and also operate a pioneering food redistribution partnership with FareShare Midlands so unsold food goes to those in need.

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