Story that always makes us cry

Mark Byford (right) and Gary Spencer

Mark Byford (right) and Gary Spencer - Credit: Archant

A favour from a friend when he was in need transformed Mark Byford’s life ? and those of countless others ? in ways he could barely have imagined. Sheena Grant reports

Feature at the Crack On Foundation in Thetford. Steph Bridges and Paul Moyse at work.

Feature at the Crack On Foundation in Thetford. Steph Bridges and Paul Moyse at work. - Credit: Archant

They’re friends and colleagues who have an amazing story to tell. It’s a story that could rival anything in the pages of a Dickens novel. But despite all its touching humanity and transformative emotional power, it’s a story that Mark Byford and Gary Spencer hardly ever share.

The reason for their reticence is simple.

It’s a story they can’t tell without being reduced to tears themselves, as I discovered when I visited them at the headquarters of the charity they founded together.

I’d been with Mark less than five minutes and had just started to ask him about the events that led him and Gary to set up Crack On, a foundation that helps young people and disadvantaged adults through volunteering, work and education programmes, when he suddenly stopped talking.


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I looked up from my notebook to find he was crying.

“It’s always the same when I tell this story,” he says. “Even years down the line it still has so much power.”

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The story starts around five years ago when Mark, a greengrocer, hit rock bottom in his life.

“My wife and I had separated after 18 years and as a result of that I was living in a tiny rented bungalow in the middle of nowhere with my children, who were then aged 10 and 14,” he says. “I had been a dad who had very little to do with bringing up my kids. I left home at 4am and worked until midnight. Suddenly I found myself only able to work when the children were at school. As a result of that, we ended up on Christmas Eve in this tiny bungalow with no money.

“I had to choose between buying food or presents for the kids and thought the kids won’t remember if they have beans on toast for Christmas lunch but they will remember if Father Christmas doesn’t come. I went onto Facebook and posted a message that I was looking for a Christmas dinner.

“Later that evening there was a knock on the door. When I opened it all I could see was this massive food hamper. It was pitch black outside and I couldn’t see who was holding it. I took it, not really understanding the situation, and never saw who delivered it.”

On top of the hamper, which was stuffed with every kind of festive food Mark and his children could have wished for, was a letter and a copy of Pay it Forward, a 2000 film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. The film tells the story of a troubled boy who, challenged by his teacher, comes up with the idea of paying a favour forward, rather than back, with good deeds to three new people.

The letter simply asked that Mark should watch the DVD and when the time was right pay the favour of the food hamper forward.

It was several months before Mark discovered the identity of the mystery benefactor was none other than his friend Gary, a chef with whom he had run breakfast meetings for businessmen and women. The two had known each other for a few years and Gary had actually visited Mark in his rented accommodation only a few days before that fateful Christmas, so had an idea of his circumstances.

“I knew he was in trouble,” says Gary. “He asked me if I’d like a cup of tea and when he opened the cupboards they were bare.”

About eight years previously Gary, who had nurtured an interest in personal development since his teenage years, had heard a story about a person delivering a food hamper to someone in need and thought it was something he would love to do too.

“But then I thought ‘Who would I help and would they really want that help?’,” he says. “I’d thought about it seriously every Christmas since but never actually done anything about it, until I saw Mark’s Facebook post.

“After that I went shopping. I felt excited and elated about doing it. I went to the veg stall near where I lived and went round the supermarket, filling a trolley. I spent £58. I didn’t have a family at that time (he is now married and a father) but I wasn’t well off. I had run a takeaway but had come out of that about six months before and was just odd-jobbing. I had about £70 in the bank but I thought ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I just handed it over without him knowing it was me because I feared he might refuse it.”

I ask Gary exactly what the note he delivered with the hamper and film said. He swallows hard and tries to speak but the emotion is too great. Instead he gestures for my notebook and writes: “This is a gift from a friend. Please enjoy these gifts with your family and have a great Christmas. You deserve it. Know that the world is a magnificent place and maybe one day do well enough to pass on this gift to another.”

Mark didn’t know what to think when the hamper was thrust into his hands.

“The kids were so excited,” he says. “We had a lovely Christmas dinner and I sat and watched the DVD the next day. It just floored me. It wasn’t until several months later that I put two and two together and realised the gift was from Gary. He denied it at first ? he didn’t do it for the glory, did he?”

In fact, it wasn’t the first time Gary had given Mark a copy of Pay it Forward. Five years earlier he had loaned the DVD to his friend.

“He returned it a fortnight later and said something like ‘Thanks for that. It was nice’,” says Gary. “I didn’t find out until a lot later that he hadn’t watched it at all then. It wasn’t the right time.”

As Mark got back on his feet again he began to think about ways he could pay Gary’s favour forward. In December 2010 the friends decided to try to get enough food together for hampers for five families. “I soon had enough donated food on my doorstep to achieve that,” says Mark. “It went up to 50 families and a friend of ours, who worked for a supermarket, got permission for us to stand in the door and look for donations.”

Over the next couple of years, the number of hampers grew into the thousands. “People started to ask ‘What are you going to do next?’,” says Mark. “We got talking to a friend about finding a way of educating kids and doing some personal development. He said ‘You ought to start a charity’. This friend had an empty shop in Newmarket. He threw us the keys and told us to get on with raising money.”

Fast forward to 2015 and the Crack On Foundation, which recently gained charity status, now has five shops in Ipswich, Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds, Watton and a 15,000 sqft warehouse in Thetford. The warehouse is the nerve centre of the operation, where books, clothes, DVDs and toys from donors and house collections are sorted, and electronic equipment and furniture is repaired or dismantled for parts. The shops sell the donated goods (more valuable things are sold online) plus a variety of fresh foods.

It is also where the charity provides volunteering opportunities for 16- 25-year-olds and disadvantaged adults. It currently has 117 volunteers, 18 paid staff (all of whom were initially volunteers) and also runs an education programme.

“All the profits from the shops go into the charity to fund the personal development side,” says Mark, who looks after the commercial part of the charity while Gary is in charge of helping people discover their individual talents and developing their self-esteem.

“A lot of the people who come to us are looking at the floor and barely talking when they arrive,” says Gary, 34. “Much of what we teach them is subliminal, so they’re not really aware that they’re learning new skills as they’re just doing it as part of the job.”

The charity runs educational programmes in a variety of places, often reaching out to youngsters who have been excluded from school and have little hope for the future.

“The aim is to make them employable so they can do something constructive and crack on with their lives,” says Mark. “It is about developing a mindset. We’ve seen people who have been so downtrodden by their circumstances or a belief structure put in place by their parents or teachers.”

Gary adds: “It is finding someone’s passion and giving them a purpose. We have got people here who might have struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning and get on with anything before. Who we really are is often completely different to what we have been told we are and the life we are living.”

Crack On, they say, gives people a chance. It replaces hopelessness with a sense of belonging.

After all the friends have achieved, does Mark, 47, who is now settled with a new partner and has recently become a father again, feel he’s paid it forward enough?

“I’ve made a start,” he says, with a smile.

To find out more, visit www.crackon.org. Anyone who would like to donate goods direct to Crack On should call 0844 372 7496.

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