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Toni Whele used to work in the marketing department of a big law firm in London, but when her second son was born with a form of cerebral palsy 18 months ago and her employer wouldn’t compromise on the hours she wanted to work she knew she had to find a new path. “I knew that if I could start my own business on my own terms I would enjoy work a lot more,” she says.
She started looking at franchises and thinking about what kind of business she could run. She was drawn to the keepsake industry as she had a number of baby keepsakes herself and treasured them. Toni joked: “I haven’t even got an art GCSE.” The Keepsake Association, however, offered online training and Toni attended special focus days to learn how to do castings and make fingerprint and hand and footprint jewellery. She also learnt how to set up her own website for her company Cherished Little Monkeys. “The Association has its own Facebook page where members can post any queries so you feel really supported”, she added.
“The biggest learning curve was how to make the products and it was important to me that my products were made to a high standard. I had to work out which of the products were the ones I enjoyed making the most,” says Toni.
She enjoys the castings most. “You can see every detail and crease of the tiny hands and feet,” she says. She does castings for babies and older children and would like to start doing casts of pregnancy bumps. These are casts that are decorated in a variety of ways and turned into bowls or other receptacles.
Toni has used her children as her models for many of her casts. Her eldest son, Hayden, who is four, helped create an Incredible Hulk fist cast. Lewis is also a model for some casts. He was born 10 weeks early and suffers from a form of cerebral palsy which affects his legs. He has monthly physiotherapy appointments and has to wear special boots as his legs are too little for splints. He also has a special lycra suit and walker to help him walk. “He is so proud of himself when he does,” says Toni. “He has the biggest smile on his face. He is so determined that I know he will walk eventually.”
Toni, who is now renting space in a shop to sell some items, works around his sleep patterns and her mum also helps out, looking after him one and a half days a week.
She says she gets a lot of satisfaction from her work. “I get a lot of lovely feedback,” she says. “People send pictures of themselves wearing the jewellery or go on social media to say thank you and that they will treasure what I have made. It is so different from what I was doing before.”
It is very much people-centred work. Toni, who lives near Chelmsford in Essex, has to reassure mums and children so they can keep calm. Mums can get a bit nervous, she says, because they don’t want the cast to go wrong if their child moves too much or they worry if their little one gets upset. The casts range in price from £115 for a frame of an under six month old’s hand and foot to a little more for a frame with the space for a photo of the baby or for older children casts. As it is something they will keep for life, Toni says she is careful to use quality frames.
To market her business she has put flyers in soft play areas and nurseries, advertised on Facebook, started a blog and has built relationships with other similar businesses, such as a private scanning company and the photographer who takes photos of the children. However, most business comes through word of mouth.
“The keepsake business is very competitive. It’s about identifying what makes you unique. For me I think it is that I get on with people, adults and children, and that I have a story to tell. Lots of people ask me about my children,” says Toni, adding that people like the face to face contact with the person who makes such personal items for them.
She says: “I feel very privileged in what I do. I get to hear mums’ stories about their births and we talk about all sorts of things, always accompanied by a cuppa and the occasional slice of cake! It’s such a personal thing and so rewarding.”