Sarah Cressall – Making A Difference

Sarah Cressall – Making A Difference

Written by Joff Alexander-Frye

Photos of Sarah Cressall by Joff Alexander-Frye, John Slater and supplied by The Creation Station

Sarah Cressall has an infectious, almost irresistible positivity about her. Founder of The Creation Station, she has gone on a journey of self-discovery, business growth and overcoming personal adversity to run the UK’s number-one Arts and Crafts franchise business, become a best-selling author and, if I may say so, a thoroughly lovely woman. I recently had the total pleasure of spending some time with Sarah at Inspiration House, the Head Offices of The Creation Station in Woodbury, near Exeter. I heard about her story, her family and her dreams for the future and left with just a bit more wonder, excitement and positivity for life than when I had arrived an hour earlier – something that I hypothesise happens frequently to those who spend a bit of time around Sarah.

Sarah was born and brought up in Bootle on Merseyside (and still has the accent to prove it) and is one of six kids. Sadly, her Dad died when she was eight-years-old and she clearly remembers her Mum saying to her, “You can’t let this hold you back Sarah. You can do whatever you want to do in life if you put your mind to it”. At the time, her passion – like many eight-year olds – was chocolate, so she wrote and illustrated her own comic about chocolate and sent it to the one and only Cadbury factory in Bourneville, Birmingham. They were so impressed with her initiative and hard work that they sent her a huge box of chocolates and a personalised letter of thanks. This was the first time in her life that Sarah remembers learning a valuable life and business lesson – in this case, the power of a goal. She explained,

“I learned that if you have a goal, you somehow become more focused and more likely to achieve it.”

A few years later, at the age of thirteen, her Mum gifted her the autobiography of Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop. This blew Sarah’s adolescent mind and she started to grapple with the concept of businesses that have a purpose (more than just making money that is). Of course, nowadays it is completely normal – almost expected in some cases – for businesses to have a social cause or purpose outside of their own commercial gain. However, this was almost forty years ago and, at the time, seemed completely revolutionary.

This sparked a sense of compassion and social conscience in Sarah. So much so that, after leaving school, she opted to volunteer for a year on Operation Raleigh (now called Raleigh International) in Zimbabwe. This organisation works to this day in remote, rural areas to improve access to safe water and sanitation, build community resilience, sustainably manage natural resources and protect vulnerable environments. This gave Sarah the ‘ground-up’ type of life experience that made her realise that she could personally make a difference in the world. A precious life lesson if ever there was one.

It was during her time in Zimbabwe that Sarah was offered a job helping local women living in rural areas to develop their own arts and crafts cooperatives, enabling them to run their own micro-businesses and stimulate the local economy. As much as Sarah wanted to take the role, she realised that, first of all, she needed to develop her own creative skills and business acumen. So, she returned to the UK and located herself in London where she worked in high-end corporate catering. She worked within organisations such as the Treasury, The Old Bailey, Law Courts and a prestigious private University in London – all of which gave her invaluable experience in finance, dealing with stakeholders, client work, customer service, managing staff and much, much more. This was exactly the grounding and experience which she needed in business to give her some momentum to move forwards in her career.

Sarah paused and commented,

“Zimbabwe was a watershed moment for me in my life. I realised that only I could choose or affect my future. And if I didn’t do it now, then when would I do it?”. Sarah took a loan out to print her designed T-shirts in order to raise the £2,500 required to go on Raleigh.”

Sarah was later commissioned by British Telecom to recreate this design at Charing Cross station on a 30ft wall and she also approached Greenpeace, eventually designing their 30th anniversary t-shirt. Meanwhile, Sarah was selling a range of her papier mache products at Camden Market and to design shops in London.

Looking to spearhead her business skills and creative passion, Sarah wasn’t quite sure exactly what this was going to look like. But the goal was there! In a serendipitous turn of events, Sarah got a picture framed as a present to her now husband Duncan. It cost £70 and Sarah thought to herself,

“£70 for four bits of wood and a bit of glass. I could do that! It would be using my hands, there is a market for this, and I can develop my designer-maker role.”

So, with the ‘Why not me?’ sort of attitude which I found out Sarah has embodied throughout her life, she put on her bravery boots, resigned from her management role, and got a job as a picture framer in London. Meanwhile, Sarah studied for a Diploma in Arts Management at Roehampton College, going on to become a Designer-Maker of functional artwork, T-Shirts, murals, Papier Mache Clocks and Stacked Glass lights.

Sarah Cressall founder of The Creation Station

Having discovered this love for creativity and business, it wasn’t long before she applied those passions and skills to her career. After moving to Devon with her husband Duncan, she joined Headway, a local charity which supports people who have suffered life-changing head and brain injuries, working in a predominantly creative capacity. Sarah ran numerous creative workshops as there are so many benefits of being involved in creative projects. Sarah told me, as they encourage mindfulness, conversation, pride, smiling, problem solving, a sense of worth and lots of laughter!

Eventually, Sarah left Headway, joining CEDA (Community Equality Disability Action) as their Head of Arts and Photography – another organisation which works with young people with a variety of disabilities. Sarah laughed,

“I was learning as I went really. I’d never really taken and printed a photo before! So I paid someone £25 per hour to tutor me on how to take good photos and I then passed on this learning to my students. I was just about one step ahead of them most of the time! It wasn’t really about me teaching them though. It was more about me facilitating their learning – nurturing them and breathing life on their goals and ambitions.”

It was around this time that Sarah found out that she was pregnant with her first son Sam. About four months into this pregnancy, she suddenly realised that she was struggling to stand up and, after visiting doctors, she stopped walking for the remainder of her pregnancy. She was diagnosed with Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) which is a ligament and tendon related condition which is essentially like very bad sprained ankles, but in both of your hips. As a result, apart from being able to drive, Sarah was confined to a wheelchair for much of the next few years as she became pregnant two more times with her other sons Ollie and Josh. In each pregnancy, she battled the same health issues, only alleviated by the fact that she worked within an organisation which catered for people with physical disabilities, meaning that this didn’t impact her work life as much as it could have done elsewhere.

As a previously active person, there were long stretches of time where Sarah was confined to a wheelchair and unable to live the type of life that she had led beforehand. Although a sobering process, this gave Sarah lots of time to think and assess her options in life, as well as her goals for the future.

So, with three active boys under the age of three and a half years old and her health restrictions in tow, Sarah went about trying to give her sons the best childhood possible. This involved taking them to lots of activities and groups where she quickly noticed that many of them seemed more about putting information into children rather than nurturing what was inside of them and encouraging their creativity to come out. She thought to herself, “If I was to create the perfect group for my sons and their friends, what would it look like?” and she went about combing her career experience for ideas and strategies that she could apply to this new brief – to create fun, educationally-based creative arts and crafts programmes which spark creativity in as many people as possible, particularly children. This was in Exmouth in 2002 and was the beginning of what has gone on to be the incredible Creation Station journey – sparking creativity and providing positive arts and crafts experiences for people all over the UK, through their many franchisees (or VIPs – Very Inspirational People – as Sarah calls them).

Sarah and her family relocated to Loughborough in 2004, but they all wanted to be back in Exmouth! Going back to the lesson that Sarah had learned as a young girl about setting goals, she had originally set one for herself, ‘Do what you want to do, live where you want to live’. Sarah visualised this scenario – lying in bed, back at home in Exmouth, with the morning light pouring through the bedroom window and ten Creation Station franchises under her belt. This goal represented happiness and business growth to her. One morning, Sarah woke up, felt the warmth of the summer sun pouring through her bedroom window and, somewhat instinctively, started to count in her head the number of franchises that had launched. She laughed to herself, realising that she had achieved her goal almost without knowing it and immediately asked herself,

“What’s next? What is my next goal? I haven’t had anywhere near the type of impact that I wanted to achieve yet.”

So, the next goal of Sarah’s was forty franchises, a goal which represented significant business growth and would require some fundamental changes in the organisation to achieve, as she was running the business from her house and stocking all of the products in her garage. You guessed it though… it wasn’t long before she achieved that goal either!

Sarah Cressall The Creation Station children painting

However, one of the main reasons that Sarah had wanted to set up her own business in the first place was to spend as much time with her sons as possible. As the business grew from ten to forty franchises, she realised that this wasn’t going to be possible unless she made arrangements accordingly, so she hired her sister Fran Long (who to this day plays a vital role within the business) which allowed Sarah to do both school runs and work from home in the afternoons and evenings. She still worked a usual working day (and the rest!) but just in a slightly more diverse working pattern than your average nine-to-five role.

Sarah hit another watershed moment in the life of her business when, in one month, two of her main suppliers went bust and her health issues returned. She was pushed to the edge of herself and wrestled with keeping both her business and her health in a positive place. She commented,

“You can grow your business but you will always get knock-backs and curveballs thrown at you. You have the choice whether you dig deep and ‘go again’ or whether you give in and let things get on top of you. The one guarantee is that things always change. You can’t affect that, but you can affect how you react to those changes.”

Fast-forwarding to today, this is clearly a mantra that Sarah has owned and lived by. With 120 Creation Station franchisees positioned all around the UK, she has a growing, thriving business to show for her years of hard work and sacrifice. These franchisees provide creative workshop experiences for people of all ages, from 0 – 99 years old. These include arty birthday parties, baby and pre-school groups, after-school clubs and workshops,  creative workshops for adults and professionals and ‘Crafternoons’ for retired or elderly people.

Not only do The Creation Station deliver classes of their own, but they are regularly approached by other organisations to come and run arts and crafts activities at their events. Previous clients include CarFest, Isle of Wight Festival, Devon County Show and running the Kid Zone for the London Olympics in 2012.

These experiences allow attendees to create something of their own, go on their own creative journey (rather than follow a set pattern or activity), enjoy the communal nature of creating things with or alongside others and have something to take away from themselves at the end of it. Sarah explained,

“It still amazes me that you can have an elderly man, his middle-aged daughter and her young child all sat doing the same craft exercise and they will all get involved and enjoy it. In fact, we’ve had many parents request similar experiences but without their children there, leading to a new market for us in craft parties for grown-ups only.”

And with 16,000 clients per week (over 1,000,000 clients in the life of the business so far), there is clearly a healthy appetite to get the creative juices flowing. In a world that sometimes feel a little lonely and grey, don’t under-estimate the power of getting around a table with some colour, glue and plastic free glitter! I’d imagine, in some cases, these moments of creative freedom have been welcome respite, a healing experience or some light in the darkness for individuals who need it.

In what proved to be a profound moment which stuck with me for several days after our time together, Sarah stated,

“Creativity is getting squeezed out of our schools, but is pretty much our biggest export as a nation. One in eleven jobs in the UK are in creative industries, but there is no course for kids to study during their education which truly allows them to explore their full creativity without fear of judgement or assessment. Elements of it perhaps, but not an educational culture that nurtures and values the creative arts.

“I believe we are all born with the capacity for creativity and it just depends if it is taught and nurtured or not. Ideas are the currency of the 21st century and Creation Station are doing our very best to ensure that we nurture creativity and unlock potential for others.”

Sarah eventually went on to share her story of how creativity has helped her as a child, adult, parent and business owner in her Amazon number one best-selling book Creative Sparks – Mishaps and hurdles to inspire you and yours.  This engaging book is also packed with over fifty-two activities to inspire your kids – some of which we’ve tried in our household since Sarah kindly gifted me a copy of the book.

With the volume of clients that The Creation Station boasts, they are clearly filling an important creative gap in society. They offer so much more than just a bit of glue and eco- friendly glitter – giving their clients the chance to problem solve, analyse, and create something that wasn’t there before. So varied are the possible applications of this type of activity, that The Creation Station are just in the early stages of launching courses for Arts within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). These courses will fuse the creative process with more traditionally mechanical or scientific disciplines.

More widely, Sarah’s next big goal is to take their franchise model overseas and become an international business. She commented,

“We started small and have already achieved a lot but we’re only just getting started. We want to increase the value and profile of creativity around the world and play our part in a wave of creativity that has a lasting impact on our communities, societies and economies.”

Now, if that isn’t a grand goal, I don’t know what is. Then again, Sarah seems to have a bit of a knack of achieving her goals. Watch this space…I certainly will be.

Follow Creation Station @creationstation or Sarah Cressall @sarahcressall on Twitter to keep up with their positive and impressive journey.

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