SPECIAL REPORT: A look at the work of Fakenham charity First Focus over the last 10 years

As Fakenham charity First Focus prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, ADAM LAZZARI looks at the work it has done over the past decade and the challenges it faces in the future.....

The year 2012 is a big one for Britain, with the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

It is also a landmark year for the charity First Focus which is celebrating 10 years of supporting people in Fakenham.

Over the last decade it has helped thousands of people from all walks of life.

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Its two paid members of staff, project manager Angela Simkiss and project co-ordinator April Simnor, along with a team of volunteers do everything from providing a social centre for people who feel isolated to arranging professional advice on numerous issues.

The charity, based on Cattle Market Street, is open to all twice a week and users say it has helped restore confidence and self-esteem.

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It was in 2001 that Terry Read, disability development worker for Norfolk County Council, first gathered together a large group of people in Fakenham who felt the time had come to address some important problems in the area. They agreed there was a need for a service that would support adults who were socially isolated, for various reasons, and disabled people and their carers, who needed easy access to information.

So First Focus was officially launched by North Norfolk MP, Norman Lamb, on August 27, 2002.

Initially only opening from 10am until 3pm on Thursdays, increasing demand meant it soon opened from 10am until 1pm on Tuesdays as well.

First Focus works closely with many organisations, including Jobcentre Plus and the Citizen's Advice Bureau and has grown into an important hub in the area, hosting a variety of clubs and support groups, holding special events on educational, seasonal, cultural and health-related issues and becoming a popular social meeting place. The types of activities offered depend on what people ask for.

Many of these activities are aimed at prolonging independent living.

In 2009 First Focus was praised by the government's Social Exclusion Task Force and has gone from strength to strength, supporting an average of 100 people a week with clubs like a creative arts group, a gardening club and a writers' workshop and support groups in areas such as strokes and diabetes.

Mrs Simkiss said: 'First Focus is a unique charity in the sense that we provide so many things under one roof and open our doors to absolutely anyone, not just people with particular disabilities. The work we do is increasingly vital as cuts to funding in services continue and I believe, in the future, towns across the country will be using us as a model to follow.'

She added: 'We are particularly grateful to all our volunteers. Without them, First Focus could not continue.'

Many of the people supported by First Focus have gone on to become volunteers for the charity themselves.

Among them are Irene Doughty, 72, who has been coming to First Focus for 10 years and first went along after her husband died.

She said: 'I become socially isolated and lost my self-esteem and confidence. First Focus helped me enormously and it is great that I am now able to help other people.'

As the government cuts continue to increase, the amount of money available for grants to support organisations such as First Focus becomes smaller and more difficult to obtain. Many funders now give preference to those groups which can show that they are trying to generate some of their own income.

First Focus is funded in part by Social Services. That money has now been redirected into personal budgets, giving the individual greater autonomy over how it is spent, resulting in much less or even no money at all for small charities.

In order to keep up with these changes, for a trial period, First Focus will operate a system of minimal charges for use of its services.

Mrs Simkiss said: 'I am confident that, despite the cuts, we will be able to secure the funding we need from grants and raising money ourselves.

'We would like to thank Lloyds TSB for a generous contribution of �20,000 over two years, awarded in April and the Living Well fund for a contribution of �25,000 over one year commencing in September. We also have money from the Big Lottery.

'We will enjoy this 10th year and look forward to many others, knowing that we are following the right paths to achieve our aim – to support those most in need and to offer a safe, welcoming social environment for all members of our community over 18 years of age.'

First Focus will be celebrating its 10th year with a party, from 10am until 1pm, on August 28, the main event, a fun day on August 30, from 10am until 3pm. All are welcome.

For more about First Focus and how you can help, call 01328 855083, or e mail info@firstfocus.org

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