Winston is the first and only certified therapy chicken in the state of Ohio. Though a bit different than your local vest-endowed golden retriever, Winston’s soft feathers and colorful personality provide emotional support to anyone who comes in contact with him. Much like an ordinary cat or dog, our feathery friend can help relieve common symptoms of stress, loneliness and depression. But Winston is anything but ordinary.
Housed in a backyard coop in the Cleveland suburbs, Winston and seven other chickens play an integral role at Free Range Skincare, a locally owned small business. Using her skills in chemistry and suburban homesteading, President and Founder Sandra Bontempo has made a career out of producing natural and ethically made soaps, lotions and creams from the free-range eggs Winston’s friends produce. Her products key vitamins, proteins and antioxidants from the eggs, essential to restoring and preserving healthy skin—think collagen, amino acids, and lutein, to name a few. But Bontempo doesn’t shy away from other natural ingredients, such as frankincense in her Herbal Day Cream, or goat milk powder, found in her soaps, lathering body scrub, and milk & honey cream cleanser. Since eggs don’t have a long shelf life, she uses eco-certified benzyl alcohol-DHA—a preservative approved by the European Union and accepted at Whole Foods—so you won’t have to worry about your soaps going bad.
Beginning as a personal mission to find a steroid-free solution to her eldest son’s severe eczema and youngest son’s pet allergy, the project soon became a heartwarming tale about defying limitations. “It’s a wonderful story about taking a negative and making it a positive,” Bontempo explains. When she discovered that chickens didn’t adversely affect her son’s allergies, the family set up a coop and soon discovered they were the recipients of a surplus of eggs. “We had more eggs than we knew what to do with,” she says. Not wanting them go to waste, the mother-turned-entrepreneur found ways to incorporate nearly every part of the eggs’ natural vitamins into her skincare remedy, developing a solution that resolved many of her eldest son’s eczema symptoms. Since then, Free Range Skincare has expanded to provide a sustainable and ethical alternative to traditional skincare brands.
Convincing a Community
Running any business is no easy feat, but Bontempo faced a particularly unique challenge in gaining her community’s support several years ago, since many cities have zoning laws that prohibit roosters and large coops. Requiring approval to keep the business afloat, the fate of the flock was uncertain until a likely hero emerged. “Partway through the meeting, my son got up and started telling everyone how important the birds are to him,” she says. At age 11, Bontempo’s eldest son delivered a courageous and passionate speech detailing the impact of the flock on the family. “He had the whole place in tears,” she explains. Like something out of a classic family movie, her son had convinced the council to allow the chickens to stay. “It was a very brave thing for him to do."
The council’s approval marked a victory for both Bontempo’s operation and chicken enthusiasts everywhere, since urban homesteading has recently started to gain traction. “People are just starting to see the potential here,” she explains.
Fun Fact: With the success of Free Range Skincare, Sandra Bontempo is giving back, donating a portion of all online sales to fund the rescue and rehabilitation of ex-battery hens—female chickens that suffer health issues from spending their lives in small factory farm-owned cages packed to resemble artillery battery. Without help, these hens often face bleak fates, as they have no space to move and subsist on scraps and hormones.
As a therapy bird, Winston has passed a rigorous set of tests to be certified as a therapy animal, including stimulation and crowd-control testing, ensuring he’s fit to travel in public and mix with large groups of people. On one occasion, the family took Winston to a local convention center during an event, intriguing onlookers at every turn. “He wore a bow-tie the entire time,” she adds. Winston has met hundreds of people, including Cleveland Clinic patients, and is especially popular with the elderly and children with autism.
Caring for the Birds
Caring for Winston and the flock has proven to be a much simpler part of running the business than one would expect. “The birds are very independent,” Bontempo explains. Basic precautionary measures include maintaining a clean, dry environment; protection from draft and contamination from other birds. The flock greatly benefits from the free-range environment, leading to eggs with a higher nutrient profile than their store-bought counterparts, and making each skincare product ethical and effective.
Of course, given the cage-free nature of the birds, predators occasionally pose a threat. Even in the suburbs, raccoons, possums and hawks are a chicken’s natural enemy, but it’s nothing Bontempo can’t handle. “I’ve gotten quite creative with hawk deterrent,” she says, going over a fishing line trick she’s developed over the years.
Stay tuned: Sandra recently opened a new store in Cleveland, featuring the first ever urban coop development center and skincare store. It provides rescue and rehabilitation services to ex-battery hens while showcasing some of her most popular online products. While you’re there, be sure to look out for Revivify, a nightly-use cream made from egg whites and aloe. This one-of-a-kind cream’s anti-inflammatory properties can help heal light bruises and redness caused by aging. If you’re looking to sooth dry skin, the Volcanic Ash and Acai cream, made with free-range egg yolk, is great for treating harsh eczema symptoms, and will also be on shelves once doors open. If you can’t wait, all products are available online now.
Guests can expect both an informative and spiritual experience, where they can feed the hens, experience the therapeutic benefits of chickens first hand, and learn more about urban homesteading. “You’re feeding the chickens, but you’re also feeding your spirit,” she explains.