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May 24, 2007

Daughter's health scare spurs unique farm project

From: Sunderland Echo - Sunderland,England,UK - May 24, 2007

By Trevor Hoyland

The shock of a toddler getting a severe form of meningitis spurred her parents into putting all their efforts into making an outdoor haven for youngsters.

Parents Catherine and William Weightman, both 32, were planning to launch a farming business, called Down at the Farm, aimed at teaching children all about rural life.

But the scheme was delayed when their three-year-old daughter Grace was struck down with the illness in February last year.

Grace survived, but has been left with disabilities, and her parents are determined that the farm project will go ahead with a wide range of attractions for all children.

Catherine, a former marketing executive, said: "Grace contracted a severe form of meningitis last year which left her with mobility issues.

"As a result we became even more aware of the importance of finding places to suit her needs and wanted to design a unique facility which could be accessed by all.

"She contracted pneumococcal meningitis ironically seven months before the vaccine was rolled out in September 2006.

"The meningitis destroyed her ears and she was left profoundly deaf with other disabilities such as loss of balance functions.

"As a result of her total deafness, the whole family had to learn sign language last year while she was fast tracked on a cochlear implant programme to enable her to regain some sort of hearing.

"She is the only person in the north of England, as far as we have been told, to have bi-lateral cochlear implants – most people are allocated one because they can cost anything up to £40,000 each."

Catherine added: "We are overwhelmed at the support we have had from the local educational authority and the medical profession – she is getting a great start to the rest of her life."

She said Grace's illness had made them determined to make Down at the Farm accessible to all, including children with sensory disabilities.

The couple are opening up Down at the Farm on a 20-acre site off Stoneygate Lane where they will keep not only conventional farm animals, but also red deer, wallabies and highland cattle.

Inspired by their own children, Grace and her 19-month-old sister Hannah, Down at the Farm is intended to be an educational initiative which will attract both families and school groups.

The Weightmans, who are hoping to open their new

venture at the end of next month, aim for it to incorporate the best of the rural countryside, but close to the cities of Sunderland and Durham.

Catherine said: "We were constantly looking for new and exciting places to take the children – somewhere where they could play in a safe environment and where we could relax as parents.

"We've got a lot of interesting animals and we will be putting up two big teepees which can be used for children's parties, story reading and where they can see sheep shearing."

To find out when Down at the Farm is opening and details about admission costs and attractions keep an eye on the website

HOW to get there: leave Sunderland by the A690 Durham Road, cross over the A19 and turn left at the former Reg Vardy garage at Stoneygate. Go up the hill to a white gate and turn in on the right.

© 2007 Sunderland Echo