Access Employment Limited is marking two decades of social enterprise in Larne.
AEL’s celebrations have been boosted after being named as Northern Ireland Social Enterprise of the Year 2018 and Henderson’s Local Supplier of the Year.
Recently, AEL chief executive David Hunter was named Leader of the Year by Social Enterprise NI.
To mark the milestone, an anniversary celebration was held on Friday.
AEL’s base at Centrepoint, Pound Street, will now be known as Larne Community Hub where 50 people are employed by the company and there are more than 100 trainees.
The company’s water bottling business, which trades under the name of “Clearer Water”, has a turnover of £200,000 in just two years.
It is stocked by the prestigious five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel in Belfast, the MHL hotel group, four retail outlets in London and the National Trust.
Water is bottled at source in a manufacturing plant in Magheramorne.
Last year, the AEL company had a turnover of £1.3m with annual savings to the public purse in benefits of £171,401.
AEL pays £10,000 per week in salaries. Forty-six per cent of employees are from the Mid and East Antrim area.
Last year, 30 per cent of suppliers were from MEA and the company spent £85,000 in 19 Larne-based businesses.
AEL is a social enterprise that provides people aged 16 to 60 years who have a learning disability, Asperger’s, autism or other disadvantage with training and employment opportunities.
Its aim is to provide disadvantaged people with skills, experience and confidence to find employment as well as creating employment.
AEL also manufactures and prepares product samples for companies Kilwaughter Minerals and Brett Martin.
Twenty-seven allotments are rented to the community. In addition, the scheme supplies fresh vegetables and fruit for AEL’s Lunchbox Cafe which is open to the public.
AEL’s ‘Candyrush’ range includes party bags, envelopes and craft products.
Sales of these products together with ‘Clearer Water’ amounted to sales of more than £500,000 last year.
AEL was the first social firm to be established in Northern Ireland in 1998 although it did not become fully operational until 1999.
Chairman Cecil Graham recalled: “The unemployment rate was 16.4 per cent. As a consequence, jobs were hard to find, particularly for people with disadvantage, whether physical or psychological or other forms of social disadvantage.
“The Action Mental Health organisation supported by funding from the European Social Fund and health boards as well as some district councils launched the province-wide Accept programme.
“The Accept programme pioneered a new initiative to assist people in acquiring new skills to enable them to join the labour market.”
Mr Graham said that he was inspired by a social firm model which had been launched in Italy and was being introduced in the United Kingdom with a “focus on potential rather than disability”.
AEL opened its doors initially in LEDCOM at Bank Road, manufacturing mops.
Partnerships were formed with Kilwaughter Minerals and Bombardier, packing small aircraft components which have been sustained ever since.
In 2013, AEL moved to the Centrepoint building, at Pound Street.
Mr Graham continued: “As well as providing additional space and creating more jobs and training base, it was also possible to expand the range of community based activities.”
It has also welcomed pupils from Roddensvale, Hillcroft, Rosstulla and Castle Tower schools on to its ‘Transitions’ programme for school leavers.
One AEL trainee said: “I want to tell people how AEL has helped me and tell new people coming here that they will get used to it and it will be like a real family.”
A parent commented: “It’s great to hear what my son can do rather than hearing what he can’t. This gives me hope of a future after school.”