When occupational therapist Emma Connolly took a leap of faith last December in opening the first occupational therapy-led hair salon in the country, little did she realise how much of an impact her new venture ‘Flourish & Be’ would have on both children and parents in reaching important milestones together.
Open to everyone and all ages but with a particular focus on children and people with sensory differences, ‘Flourish & Be’ on Pearse Street in Clonakilty is a bespoke, sensory inclusive and accessible hair salon that is evidence-based and tailored to the individual needs of each client.
“First haircuts, first ear piercing, first independent purchase of a toy or accessory. Children who feared the hairdressers or barbers, and social interaction within the retail sector, have got beautiful haircuts – tear free! she shares.
Emma’s vision involved sharing the power of occupational therapy to really make a difference for the children and families that come through the door for her unique services.
At the heart of it all is inclusion. Passionate about breaking down the barriers that unintentionally contribute to occupational deprivation, Emma wanted to create a more accessible space where difference is celebrated. When children arrive, they are encouraged to feel at home and explore.
“This never gets old for me,” says Emma. “They have so much fun and usually they don’t want to leave! Also the burden of relief for parents is something I am really proud of.”
Integral to the business model is that parents in particular feel supported and not judged or under pressure and that children and young adults feel safe and understood. Any accommodations that may need to be put in place are done so in advance following pre-appointment consultation to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for all.
This is not a standard salon so there was a lot of work involved in bringing all of the sensory elements and child-friendly fittings together while still retaining its salon functionality. Equipment has been carefully sourced keeping in mind the decibel level, allowing for a calmer, quieter space. Even the bathroom has been adapted to be family-friendly and adds to the overall experience. There are various sensory stations and digital devices, including interactive bubble tubes and fibre optics, a gaming station, a play house, a TV, as well as fun games and toys. All fluorescent lighting has been replaced with softer, dimmable LED fixtures allowing to reduce of any light sensitivities as required.
“I grew tired of seeing families stressed and overwhelmed when it comes to their shopping experiences, either in salons, supermarkets, play zones or shopping centres,” says the therapist. “For the most part, the environments are unsuitable, resulting in distress and ultimately them opting out. Engagement in self-care and meaningful activities should be a seamless process without barriers, and obstacles which can impact negatively on the overall experience.”
Emma’s vision was for a more welcoming type of salon that would allow for a much more meaningful experience for these families. “For their children to get a simple haircut before now has been a highly stressful experience with some parents resorting to cutting the child’s hair while they were sleeping. I knew I could merge my knowledge and experience to create something really special while also meeting a hug gap in the market.”
This is Emma’s second business venture. The mother-of-four, who lives in Clonakilty, also works full-time as an Occupational Therapist. Much of her work involves working with families with young children but she also works a lot with students in third level education.
“I love my job and surround myself with like-minded people who have a positive mindset,” she shares. “Fun and laughter motivate me.”
Before opening her private practice, Emma worked for both the public and private sector, and continues to work with various health organisations and private companies through her practice.
Determined that her specialised skills would be put to use for the whole wider community, Emma says it was a combination of hard work and sheer determination that got her to where she is today. “There were many curve balls sent my way over the course of my journey, but I have good aim, and so they were sent away as quick as they came.”
On the go with two businesses to manage and four children, Emma says she couldn’t do it without the support of “good coffee, my husband, my mammy and google calendar!”
Family comes first always and they’re a household of big food and music lovers. She also has a penchant for upcycling and DIY. “I got a new drill in West Cork Building Supplies and there is no stopping me now! she laughs.
Back to business and the larger vision for Emma involves educating and supporting other business and organisations around the country to be leaders in their field when it comes to inclusion.
“There simply is not enough being done and I want to change mindsets and encourage more business and organisations and leaders to support and embrace individuality. I have started with the hair industry but already have received many requests from various types of businesses and organisations. So I know the desire is there for them to want to do better. So I will be helping them do exactly that.”
At a very exciting point in her career, Emma is looking forward to taking on new and interesting projects, becoming more involved in the local community and watching the salon flourish and grow over the next five years.