My first experience of the HCPT charity started back in 1997.
It was an ‘interest meeting’ held at the school attended by members of the lower sixth form of which I was one. Initially I was quite apprehensive; the idea of looking after a child for a week was daunting, especially when having to consider their special needs. I was unsure if I had the maturity, resolve or patience.
Through further enquiry and the teenage spirit of ‘I will do it if you do it’, I and a group of 6 friends signed up to be helpers. A preparation weekend was held in January, which helped put my mind at ease.
Training was provided on the different aspects of the Pilgrimage week, possible situations and procedures but most importantly I had the opportunity to find out about my child and how to make sure they were suitably cared for. It was also apparent that I would not be alone; there was a good support network within the Group and many experienced helpers to call on for advice.
Throughout February and March a number of day trips were held including a bowling trip. This was a great opportunity to get to know the children and the group but also to experience a small snapshot of what the week in Lourdes would be like. The trip started with a short flight from Gatwick airport and arrived in a small town in the shadow of the Alps: Lourdes, while the town itself was a little gaudy, with a booming tacky religious souvenirs industry, the domain itself was stunning; a place of real peace, solemnity and healing. The beautiful mosaics of the Rosary Basilica, the size of the Basilica of St. Pius X and the peacefulness of the Grotto are vivid memories from this first visit.
The week consisted of a number of group events such as the Regional Mass and the all singing, all dancing HCPT Trust Mass. A number of smaller individual group events were held including visits to the Grotto, relaxing in the prairie, a tour to Bernadette’s house and a trip to Gavarnie (a small town in the Alps). Many activities were enthusiastically bridged by a trip to the local coffee shops to avoid the rain.
I gained a great deal from this first trip. I built a strong rapport with my child and sense of responsibility; the hard times and the tiredness were easily displaced by the fun and enjoyment we both had. I found a new level of maturity and a deeper, practical meaning to my faith, as well as the ability to recite all 10 verses of ‘Rise and shine’ with actions.
Since then I have attended a number of Lourdes pilgrimages and each time the experience has been different, while it is great to see some of the old children and helpers return, it is exciting to introduce new members to the experience. What remains constant is the great sense of camaraderie within the groups and the lively, almost carnival-type atmosphere of Lourdes during the week.
Some people may be initially put off by the idea of a pilgrimage or fear they may be uncomfortable with the expression of faith this might entail. However, I am yet to meet anyone who has felt pressured, uncomfortable or isolated by their group or the surroundings. While it is a religious experience for many; the Christian principles of helping others and healing are so vividly expressed through the week's activities. It is also a very humbling experience, it has a way of making you see how trivial some of the day to day general complaints really are and most importantly: how you can try to be a better person.
A first time helper’s experience
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was really dreading going on the HCPT trip. I joked to my friends ‘it’s hard enough having to live with a disabled brother, but to choose to take a whole bunch of children with various special needs on holiday, well that’s madness!’ I was having visions of myself stranded with all these children running about doing God-knows-what whilst all the other members spent their time making in-jokes and leaving me out!
Well, I was right about it being hard work, but aside from that, I couldn’t have been more wrong!
From the moment I arrived at our first training weekend I immediately felt welcomed into the Group 24 family. I found myself helping in any way I could and chatting with everyone in sight.
Meeting the children was the biggest thrill. For some of them it was their first time on a plane and they were all very excited.
Before I knew it, we were in Lourdes getting up at 7 and doing more each day than I ever thought possible. We visited churches, went to the zoo, won first place at sports day, went donkey riding, had snowball fights. You didn’t have time to be tired and we survived on the energy which seemed to bounce off every Group 24 member.
HCPT would not be the same without its religious element. I’d like to share a couple of anecdotes with you which demonstrate this:
One of the boys, Josh, was coming for the second time and we were about to have our first mass. Josh was being surprisingly restless and eventually grabbed a tambourine out of a box nearby and with it in his hand, he calmed down. When Fr Perry came to the Consecration, Josh started shaking the tambourine, just as an altar boy would ring the bells. For him to have decided to do this following his first visit to Lourdes the previous year, completely without our encouragement, was deeply moving.
A few days after the trip we received a letter from the mother of Ciaron from Chailey Heritage, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. She thanked us for taking him and explained what a difference the trip had made to his life. Ciaron had come back a completely changed boy, no longer suffering from the ‘triggers’ he used to react on and with a much better outlook on life. No words can describe how proud Group 24 is of this.
If you asked, I would not be able to name my favourite part of the trip: I loved every moment and it was undoubtedly the best week of my life. Seeing how happy the children were and how their friendships developed over the week was truly touching. Socially, I feel as if I have gained a whole new addition to my family.