Cromer charity is veteran champion of the big society as it marks 10 years

Localism and the Big Society are the latest buzzwords being bandied about by the coalition government as it forges ahead with its latest policies.

But in a small, unassuming corner of north Norfolk a charity has been quietly championing both these ideals for years.

'We invented the big society long before it came out,' said Helen Dalton-Hare, founder of About With Friends, a group that provides opportunities and activities for children and adults with learning disabilities. 'We have been doing it for years.'

The charity started life in her Mundesley home with a handful of people.

Now 10 years old it has exploded in size, with more than 100 members, 20 workers and 30-plus volunteers and moved into larger premises in Cromer.

Its activities are myriad, running several social clubs and organising holidays both in the UK and abroad for its members, but it also has a bustling employment scheme.

Under the Work With Friends banner it runs catering and gardening services, which are set to expand further this year, and allows members to work in areas to support the charity, such as organising activities for outside users.

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Ms Dalton-Hare said the charity was unique as it provided members with an opportunity to work, which gave them valuable life skills and let them give something back.

'For most of our members it's the first time they have ever had the joy of work,' she added.

'They might have been in a day centre for 30 years and just been a recipient of a service and now they're a service provider. Despite a lot of them having quite high levels of disability, when you put enough support in it's astonishing what people can achieve.'

Ms Dalton-Hare stressed About With Friends was a member-led organisation and the work scheme had been introduced at their request.

She said: 'Rather than having an organisation for people with learning disabilities run by a staff team we have turned it round here and our members feel hugely responsible for this organisation.'

Ms Dalton-Hare was spurred into establishing the group after working with disabled students at Paston College and discovering there was little opportunity for them to socialise with their peers.

She began organising social meetings from her home and as more people joined, the activities grew.

About With Friends now organises activities for non-members, including running an over-60s lunch club, and is soon to start working with the local MS Society.

Its gardening service is so in demand a second outdoor team is being established and its catering business receives regular bookings for outside events, including weddings, and has become the caterer of choice for Victory Housing Association.

Among the members who work in the kitchen is David Goss, who said the charity had made 'a big difference' to his life since he joined three years ago.

The 28-year-old from Sheringham said: 'I'm really happy. I have now got my confidence back and I have made loads of mates.

'And the holidays are fantastic.'

His dad, Myron, was full of praise for the charity and thought it was a shame there were not more like it, saying: 'His confidence is sky high. He gets on a bus now and he's got NVQs for kitchen work, which he would have never got. They have just given him his own personality.'

The charity's Cromer HQ is a near-constant hive of activity with members, staff and volunteers preparing the next food order, making crafts and gifts to sell at local fairs or just discussing their holiday plans.

But Ms Dalton-Hare said there was always room for more growth.

'Watch this space because the future will be whatever our members are asking of us,' she added. 'Where we fit in is helping them achieve their dreams.'

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