Monday 15 August 2016

HCPT Group 560 - A week to change your life

I was away last week. Regular long term readers of the blog will know that most years, I go as a helper with HCPT group 560 to Hosanna House in Bartres, France for a week. The group enables people with various disabilities to visit the shrine of Lourdes in France. As a helper, I am there to ensure that everyone in the group has the best week possible. It is very hard to describe exactly what the week is like. The setting is absolutely stunning, this is the view that greeted me when I awoke every morning.
The view for breakfast
There is strong emphasis on building a feeling of belonging to the group. On the first full day we have a briefing. Helen, who has cerebral Palsy and uses an electric wheelchair and has come for many years gave us a rousing team talk. Helen is an inspiration, living independently in her own flat despite the issues that confront her. She was pleased to see me, and tell me how she'd visited South Africa for an extended holiday earlier in the year. Several years ago I asked Helen what she enjoyed about out group. She told me that it was because we didn't think adults who had disabilities, but were fully mentally competent were interested in basket weaving as a leisure activity. Within our group, there are some talented musicians (and myself) and music, humour and telling stories is a huge part of the package. The first time I went with our group, back in 2001, I went primarily to "do my bit helping other people". To my surprise, the person who benefitted most was probably me. The reason was that the previous Xmas,my mother had had a major stroke and I was having problems dealing with the reality of her disability. By the end of that trip, I'd realised just how lukcy my mum was. I also realised that there was no reason she couldn't come with us, which she did the next time I went im 2004. She went a further three times. After she passed away in 2008, I took my cousin Theresa, who has Downs Syndrom three times. Sadly Theresa can no longer travel.

Helen briefs the group
The two lessons were that the biggest challenge the disabled have is the attitudes of the rest of us. The second lesson was disability doesn't diminish our humanity. I would urge anyone to volunteer as a helper with a group such as ours. You may wonder about the religious aspect, clearly if  a group is going to Lourdes, having a degree of faith is probably helpful, although not compulsory. Ever since 2006, I've had at least one of my children with me. They are not religious, but volunteer to come as they get a lot out of the experience. On one occasion, my daughter was accompanied by a school friend who was Jewish. After we returned, he told me he thought it was a hugely positive experience. It helped him to understand his own faith and to also get a fresh perspective on life. Of course some of us would be put off by this. I'd say that if this is how youy feel, then why not checkout volunteering with a secular charity that takes disabled people on holiday. It is a really good way of learning to understand teamwork and cooperation. It also makes you value the gifts you have. For me HCPT works. Within our group, the mix is probably 50% Roman Catholic and 50% of other/no denomination. Most return, because it is rare that people don't get anything from the experience. There are no activities that are compulsory, so you are not compelled to do anything (apart from make sure the people you are helping are safe and happy).

Night time activities
As to the type of things you do as a helper. For me I was rooming with a chap who simply needed to be pushed when we went out. Apart from that he was fine. My daughter and a friend also came this time. They roomed with a teenage girl with Downs Syndrome. This was the second time she'd been with this young lady and the friendship they've built is a joy to behold. My son also came. He didn't room with someone who needed helping, but was involved in early morning tea duties, pushing people in wheelchairs, setting tables and assisiting people in the bathroom etc. Our group had two nurses, who were on hand to assist with any medical issues.

As a fit helper, you have to do a lot of pushing people in wheelchairs!

One of the mistakes we make is to make assumptions about people with disablities. One of our group, Katie, who has cerebal palsy, graduated last year. For her, she felt that passing a degree course was vital, as she believes that it is vital to prove that there is no reason why people in her situation should be overlooked from partaking in a full education. She is now far better educationally qualified than I am, so I think she's got nothing to prove.

And we don't tuck people up early and then go to the pub!

One of the best things for me was a week with limited access to social media. I didn't look at Twitter at all for most of the week. I was too busy and where we did have wireless access, I was desperately trying to read important emails. I'd recommend a social media detox for all!

I must also mention the food. As we were in France and the house team are French, the food was absolutely fantastic. As I don't do dairy, sadly I missed out on the cheeses and some amazing looking desserts. Lunch was two courses and dinner three. There was an ample supply of wine to be taken with dinner (sadly as I was on driving duty on occasion, I couldn't always partake as HCPT rules are no alcohol when driving).

A lot of table tennis was played as well, a lot of guitars were strummed, a lot of songs sung and a lot of fun was had. Our group has a tradition of a talent show on the last night. As ever it was hilarious. My contribution was to lead a group performing the Ewan MacColl. I was lucky enough to have Margaret singing and Fr Pat playing the tin whistle line one the recorder! I was determined that my song wouldn't suffer the same fate as the previous year, when Gordon, who has cerebal palsy, dismissed my rendition of  Perfect Day by Lou Reed as "RUBBISH!".  My son used his slot as a perfect opportunity to wind both myself and my friend Paul up as best he could, much to the amusement of the wider group.

You may wonder what sort of people volunteer? Our group had a fascinating mix of people, a couple of actresses, a former head of light entertainment at ITV (I think that was the role), a retired professional sportsman/commentator, a banker, some teachers and some retired teachers, a few teenagers at school/uni, a policeman, a trainee CofE vicar, a couple of C priests, a retired doctor and me (apologies if I missed anyone). As a group, I think we bonded pretty well. This was the 11th time I've been with the group, but I am still learning things. I always come back feeling recharged. This has been a difficult year for me personally. In January, regular readers will know I had a procedure to treat my Prostate cancer. One of the questions which one of me rather cynical mates asked was whether I was going "to get a miracle". For me, I'm not interested in miraculous cures. The thought never crossed my mind. Of all the disabled peopel I've spoken to, who have ever been with our group, only one ever went seeking a miracle cure. Sadly he was disappointed. For me, the people who really need the miracle are those of us who have got so obsessed with the goodies on offer in our materialistic world, that we miss the great things we get for free. These are love, friendship, the natural beauty in the world and the joy of sharing meals and a drink with friends. We are si obsessed with "stuff" that we overlook these. I consider the biggest blessing I have in life is that I appreciate this and my weeks in Lourdes, remind my of the gifts I do have.

As a little footnote, I got back to find the Olympics in full flow. We had no telly at all for a week, so it had largely passed me by for week one. An interesting thought occurred to me. Elite atheletes are bringing us huge pride and joy with there efforts, honed with years of training. The Olympics really are a truly wonderous celebration of human achievement. I do however think that the challenges some of my disabled friends have to surmount every day pale them into insignificance. Imagine if every single thing did, getting up, going to bed, eating, going to the toilet, washing and even cleaning your teeth, required a helper (or two).  If every person you met assumed you were an idiot, because of the way you look. If every new person you met talked to you in a childish voice and asked you to repeat yourself six times as they didn't understand you. To put up with that and still be cheerful and good fun is perhaps a supreme achievement.

Please note that all comments/views expressed here are personal and in no way reflect the views/ethos of HCPT or anyone else apart from me. Some names have been changed for privacy.

No comments: