“We just want to create an environment where it’s safe and there’s no pressure.. where we all don’t take ourselves too seriously”
Partners Gareth Little and David English moved back to David’s hometown of Ballynanich six years ago and ever since have made a positive difference to the community.
Both having backgrounds in working with adults with special needs, the pair established a social club where they could connect people in a way they thought was missing in the area.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Gareth said: “We realised there wasn’t much in the area for the guys so I got the idea to start our own social club and Harry’s Mates was born.
“It started about two or three years ago and a local church let us use their hall and we soon realised we needed to raise money for the insurance.”
As the couple had both turned vegan, Gareth who is known as The Little Bearded Baker began experimenting with baking before taking his skills to the local markets.
David said: “When covid hit, it forced us to get out and deliver so our client base grew over the pandemic and as the bakery grew so did Harry’s Mates.”
The club got its name from Gareth’s uncle Harry Dunn who unfortunately passed away two years ago.
Gareth explained: “He was the first person I ever knew with a learning disability – to us, he was just uncle Harry and we knew no different.
“All the guys know about him and his memory lives on, we see a lot of Harry in them so to us as a family, he still lives on through it and it’s a lovely way to mark his memory.”
As restrictions meant that physical meet-ups had to be halted, Gareth and David took Harry’s Mates online to ensure the group had a safe space for them to connect during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Gareth added: “To say it exploded is an understatement. We always had this dream and we thought why not go for it and introduce Harry’s Place.”
David continued: “This used to be a really well established Chinese for over 20 years and Gareth had a great vision from the minute we walked in of what it could be, I didn’t really see it and was sceptical but Gareth gets things done.
“He is a dreamer but when he’s got a goal, he will reach it.”
Harry’s Place CIC (Community Interest Company) is a completely plant-based cafe and provides a range of facilities and services to empower those with not only learning disabilities but physical disabilities, sight and hearing impairment and also mental health issues.
“I worked at a charity before and what I was doing there was community group-based activities with 15 guys a day and we wanted to bring something similar here.
“We find that more and more people are being referred through friends and family and different organisations such as Mencap,” David said.
Gareth continued: “We didn’t reach out to find the guys, they came to us which we loved.
“We have a lot of people working behind the scenes, cooking, cleaning, baking, prepping and a lot of carrying on.
“We didn’t want the guys to become numbers. A lot of the time, they get lost in the system so this is why we are doing it ourselves for them.”
Harry’s Mates and Place are fully reliant on what they make through the bakery, cafe and generous donations and volunteering from supporters and the local community.
David said: “We want to be able to pay them essentially – the end goal is to get them all employed. A lot of them want to be here long term because they are valued and do a great job.”
“We are hoping that if we get a grant we will be able to employ them if it’s full time or even just eight hours.
“They see it as their home,” Gareth explained.
After discovering Harry’s Place on Facebook, Sarah joined the team in April on a one day a week basis, now Gareth and David cannot keep her away.
Sarah said: “I love it. I do a bit of everything – it’s fun getting to work with everyone and get to help them.”
After a recommendation from his mother’s friend, Ruairi found a new passion when he started working in the cafe and has now been promoted to the front of house for his outstanding hospitality.
“Before this Covid thing, I lost my job and had nowhere to go to, no socialising, no friends to talk to, no people to talk to but I found here and love here ever since,” he said.
The pair hope they can build on the success of their social club and cafe to bring even more opportunities to the disabled community such as Harry’s Hangouts and even Harry’s Beauty Salon to tap into everyone’s specific interests.
Getting emotional, Gareth explained: “We just want them to feel as special as what they really are.
“We’re told it’s a very welcoming environment and what we have found is it’s the guys that make them feel that way.”
“We just want to create an environment where it’s safe and there’s no pressure, where we all don’t take ourselves too seriously,” David added.
To donate to Harry’s Place, click here.