Helen Dalton-Hare BEM founded learning disabilities charity About with Friends, 20 years ago this year. Ahead of a busy Christmas period, she explains how she’s been on a mission to change the lives of people with learning disabilities ever since
Helen Dalton-Hare came to settle in Norfolk for the quality of life. And for the past 20 years she has been helping people with learning disabilities across the country have a good quality of life, too, thanks to founding About with Friends charity. ‘I used to come to Norfolk when I was younger, to Mundesley holiday camp, and we loved it,’ says Helen. She decided North London was no longer for her after her car was broken into twice in one week. ‘We came to Norfolk, looked around and decided to move.’
That was 26 years ago, on her 40th birthday. ‘When I first came, I renovated a house then I worked for social services and then Paston College.’
Having worked for Mencap in London, and as a Community Outreach Lead for students with disabilities at Paston, Helen realised that her passion was for working with children and adults with learning disabilities and supporting them to have the life of their choice.
‘I used to talk to my students at Paston College and ask them what they did at the weekend, and they would say ‘we went shopping with mum.’
It got Helen thinking. ‘We set up our own little group with an initial nucleus of eight young people with learning disabilities. They just wanted to hang out: go to youth clubs, bowling, and live music events. Our charity was born from that.’
Helen founded Cromer-based About with Friends in 2002, to provide much-needed services in rural North Norfolk. ‘It’s our 20th anniversary,’ says Helen, ‘we’ve gone from eight members to 160-plus. Members come from a 20-mile radius – from Fakenham, Norwich, Stalham…the area we cover is very wide.’ They are also made up of both children and adults.
Nowadays, there’s an About with Friends Community Café in the town; and the charity has evolved in all sorts of ways, ‘from a leisure service and a work skills service, to supported living and outreach and holidays – which gives great respite to families,’ says Helen.
The supported living accommodation is run to meet the standards set out by the Care Quality Commission, and there’s also a bespoke service for young people and adults who find it difficult to cope in other settings. All-in-all, she says: ‘We are a hugely busy place.’
Helen was awarded a British Empire Medal in the 2014 New Year Honours. ‘I was so thrilled I can’t tell you.’ She accepted it on behalf of all the team, which is made up of full-time and part-time staff, volunteers and valued supporters. ‘We now have 64 staff. We are a medium – maybe even a large – employer in the North Norfolk area.’
She says: ‘All of us work hard. We are so committed to what we do, and we love what we do. It’s a very joyous place to work – we work hard and play hard.’
At the start of the Covid pandemic, Helen says: ‘We were incredibly active at the time when everybody had to stay home. We looked at what we could do, and we worked so hard.’
This involved taking meals to people on a ‘banqueting bus’: brunch, lunch and high tea. ‘We would visit families and it meant they got to see people.’
About with Friends also set up Facebook Live shows to keep people connected. ‘They were so popular, and it wasn’t people who were part of our organisation – it was people with learning disabilities all over the country.
‘The Facebook stuff was such a good way of introducing people with a learning disability. We set up events for health people to talk to members and their families, hosting Zoom meetings with commissioners.’
For the past year or so, About with Friends has taken charge of the catering at the North Norfolk District Council canteen. Helen says: ‘What it does is put people with a learning disability right in the middle of that community, concentrating on their ability.’
Add to that gardening services, outside catering services, hair and beauty, and upcycling services, and you get the idea of the scope of the charity since its inception two decades ago.
The charity is busy in the lead up to Christmas. ‘Next Tuesday our members and staff – dressed as elves and in Christmas jumpers – are going to spend the day with the elderly residents of Woodside Care Home in Norwich,’ says Helen. ‘They will be taking home cooked foods, a huge Christmas cake – in competition with the chef’s cake. We will also be organising bingo, the higher/lower game, carol singing and karaoke – all for prizes. Our members enjoy working in the community and the staff and residents of Woodside are excited we are going.’ Then there will ‘a big party on Saturday with 100 members discoing through the evening.’
What’s the secret to the charity’s success? ‘We listen to our members,’ says Helen. ‘What we’ve done as the years have gone on is totally focus on what the families need.’ Plus, she adds: ‘What we’ve done is take a shot at stuff – we haven’t been risk averse.’
And she adds: ‘We find a variety of things they are interested in. There’s no way they are just here for leisure services. They are here to learn skills for life.’
Visit About With Friends. If you are interested in volunteering for About With Friends, call 01263 515230 or email email@example.com. AWF are looking for premises in Cromer to own as the charity currently rents all its sites. Having the opportunity to own something would allow allow AWF to apply for capital grants and help secure the long term security of the charity.