PUBLISHED: 05:46 24 November 2014
What started as a simple idea dreamed up around a kitchen table, is now transforming the lives of those with learning disabilities across Norfolk, bringing independence, aspiration and opportunity.
Just over a decade on, the 150 members of About with Friends in Cromer are enjoying days and nights out, holidays and great opportunities to learn news skills and work within the community.
The charity was the brainchild of social worker Helen Dalton-Hare, who felt there were very few things for people with learning disabilities to do in the area. She gathered a group of volunteers together and started a club of “friends” to provide regular social activities for what was initially a handful of adults.
“As we sat in my kitchen, the first thing we realised very quickly was that our ‘friends’ knew very clearly what they wanted out of life and had aspirations just like anyone else,” says Helen, who is chief executive of the charity. “We ask them what they want to do, not do things we think they want. We consider the volunteers, the staff and the members as equals. We are very much one team.”
Based in Cromer, the charity has members from all over Norfolk, and is growing all the time. Helen and her team began organising trips to the cinema, nights down the pub for members with their friends, and day trips to London – something which many of them had never experienced before.
“As the charity developed, many of our members began asking about working, so we started a work skills programme. It has been a phenomenal success,” says Helen. “We offer them training, support and teach them about the responsibilities of working, and then find opportunities to begin using those skills. Now they help run lunch clubs, do gardening, all sorts of things.”
Initially the charity took referrals from Age Concern UK, housing associations and social services to find clients, but such was the success of its work programme, the customer base has developed.
“Our gardening team are out every day working for different people. They often get jobs because another person has recommended them, which is really important to us.”
The charity’s catering team is very popular with members and they regularly cook for corporate events for Norfolk County Council and Victory Housing, as well as running successful lunch clubs.
This year, About with Friends opened The Community Cafe in the centre of Cromer, which is open seven days a week.
“Supported by our staff, our members help run the café doing everything from taking orders and preparing drinks to washing up, serving food and taking payment and they really love what they are doing. They are certainly not jaded or fed up with their job, they are thriving having been given the chance to have responsibility and independence and the service is excellent – as is the food.
“Take the dis out of disability and focus on what remains - the ability. That is what is important, it is central to everything we do.”
About with Friends is always looking for volunteers, aged 15 upwards; 01263 515230 and www.aboutwithfriends.co.uk