Mark Byford admits that he is more into action than paperwork. It is this predisposition and a desire to help disadvantaged people which motivated he and friend Gary Spencer set up the Crack On Foundation around four years ago.
“That’s the idea behind the name,” he said. “It’s about encouraging people to crack on and do something.”
Sitting in the office of his charity’s warehouse, he looks like he’d be more comfortable out on the floor with the volunteers the charity is designed to help – where his true passion lies.
“We have helped thousands of people who, for whatever reason, are completely and utterly lost,” he said.
“It is not until you see the change in people that you can really see what we do – that is what I am in it for.
“They come to us with no self-estemm, no belief in what they can physically do. It is about progress and monitoring that progress so they get what they want out of being here.
“Gary and I appreciate that is what we wanted to do, but we were not sure how to deliver it.”
The journey began several years ago when Gary, formerly a lifestyle coach, dropped a food hamper on Mark’s doorstep on Christmas Eve.
“I was living on my own with my two children, then aged 14 and 10, and I was struggling financially,” said Mark. “It came to Christmas, and I could either afford presents or food.
“I put a post on Facebook about it, and Gary saw it and turned up at my house in the pitch black and handed me a big box of food. I didn’t see who it was, and by the time I turned arond he was gone.”
Inside the box was a film, Pay It Forward, which had inspired Gary’s good deed. Mark said it promoted the idea of doing something ‘nice or necessary’ for someone else, and expecting repayment when they are able to.
Gary, former owner of a takeaway in West Row, said he had ‘sat on the idea’ of starting his own business for several years.
“I’ve always been interested in personal development,” he said. “Like any good idea that takes a bit of effort. I sat on it for eight years, wondering how to go about it.
“Then there came a time where I had a friend, Mark, who was in trouble, and that was my moment.
“I had no idea it would create what it has now. This has given people jobs, self-respect. Because I stepped forward, thousands of people have been helped.”
The pair launched a food hamper appeal together six years ago, trying to collect enough for five families, when a friend who worked at a local supermarket negotiated a deal for them to collect in the store from customers.
“Year on year we got enough for 50 families, then 500, then 5,000,” said Mark.
While this seasonal appeal was expanding, the Crack On Foundation itself was taking shape.
It was the idea of ‘paying it forward’ which gave Mark and Gary their first premises in Newmarket, rented to them temporarily and free of charge by a friend to see if they could make a go of their business venture.
From humble beginnings the company, which recently gained charity status, now employs 20 staff and has five shops in Ipswich, Watton, Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds, and a 15,000sqft warehouse in Thetford.
Open for nearly three years, this warehouse is the central hub, where collections of books, clothes, DVDs and toys from donors and house collections are sorted, and electronic equipment and furniture is repaired or dismantled for parts.
It is also where the charity provides volunteering opportunities for 16-25-year-olds and disadvantaged adults. Currently it has around 100 volunteers, and is also running an education programme.
“The idea of the Thetford building is to build confidence and give them the experience to hold a job down and become a team player,” said Mark
“We help them to understand a little more about what life is like in a working environment. Some of them have never seen anyone else work before.
“We try to give them every aspect of a commercial experience, so when they go for a job they can think, ‘I’ve done that hundreds of times’.
“We also work with them on their English and maths, a lot of basic stuff they don’t realise they are doing because it’s within a commercial environment.
“The counselling and coaching they get with us is very subliminal. It’s about teaching some basic skills they can take away to their homes and outside lives.”
Both Gary and Mark are big believers in the realisation of personal potential, working with each volunteer to find out where they would be best placed in the warehouse to make the most of their experience.
Gary said: “People have to get past all these stories they keep putting in their own heads. It’s about working through what has been put in front of you and getting on with what you want to do.
“In the warehouse we see people develop. In anything in life you get flashes of inspiration, and you think, ‘I could do that’. If you can face it all and work past the barriers, the results are beaufitul and should be treasured.”
Mark praised the cooperation of the Job Centre in the warehouse’s volunteering operation.
“There is high unemployment in Thetford and the Job Centre has been brilliant from day one, making sure we’re kept full of volunteers,” he said.
“We get them into a job, and the centre never sees them again.”
Recently the foundation has started its own Amazon store, selling the mountains of books, CDs and DVDs it collects from across Norfolk and Suffolk and providing its volunteers with further opportunities to expand their skills base.
Opened in December, the store has become so popular that Gary and Mark are struggling to keep up with the demand. He’s making a plea for people to seek out any unwanted items and donate them to the foundation.
The shops have also recently starting selling fresh fruit and vegetables, the orders for which are also managed at the warehouse.
“I’m a greengrocer by trade, and Gary used to work as a chef,” explained Mark.
“We wanted to get into selling food, anything we can get locally to make sure the money stays local. It’s about getting good quality food out there for good prices.”
As the foundation continues to expand and its ranks of volunteers and staff swell, neither Gary nor Mark shows signs of flagging.
Comparing it to ‘spinning plates’, Mark said: “We didn’t think it was going to get this big, but now you look at it and think we have helped thousands of people.”