By David Hennessy
Anerley Across, established by Ben Cahill in 1982, has been transporting sick children and adults to Lourdes for over three decades now. Travelling by jumbulance, a comfortable coach/ambulance, they take people with illness or disability on pilgrimage. This is something their passengers would not otherwise be able to do as their disabilities or complex needs preclude them from flying but Ben Cahill and his helpers, some of whom have been with Anerley Across for 25 years, make the impossible possible.
“It is still every bit as rewarding after all these years,” Ben Cahill tells The Irish World. “I can still remember every trip really. Right at the very beginning, I used to do two or three trips a year because money was plentiful then.”
The journey from London to Lourdes takes eighteen hours, taking 13 helpers (which include a doctor, priest male and female nurses like Ben’s wife Christina) and 11 VIPs as they refer to their sick/disabled passengers. Each trip is 14 days from departure to arrival back. There are many branches of Across besides the Anerley branch and a jumbulance leaves somewhere in the UK heading for Lourdes every Thursday between Easter and October. During their stay, the group reside at The Hotel Mediterranee where they receive a very warm welcome and the hotel have adapted their second floor for the groups, allowing easy access for wheelchairs and other disabled people. Ben describes the trips as hard, explaining that the team of helpers can’t overstretch themselves and so choosing candidates is very difficult.
Soon after setting up Anerley Across, Ben brought two groups of disabled children to Rome for private audiences with Pope John Paul II: “He came along and met all the kids and that was really something else, spoke to everyone and spoke to us. That was everlasting: Something you’ll always think of. It was really a highlight because he was a great individual, the late pope.”
When Ben and Anerley Across began doing this, it cost £5,700 to bring 24 people to the French commune known to be associated with miraculous healings. Now, taking the same number of people costs £17,000 so there is a constant fundraising effort required to have enough for their annual trip: “Way back in the early 80s, I could afford to do two or three trips a year but things have gone up now in price.
“We fundraise for everybody, we fundraise for the helpers and the VIPs because some of the helpers have been coming over 20 years now and they all take ten days out of their working lives so it’s only fair for us to raise the money for them.
“It’s a lot of money to raise once a year but we manage to do it all the time. We’ve got some great friends and people in clubs, Sydenham Catholic Club are great, they do a couple of fundraising nights a year and Addiscomebe Catholic Club, Bingham Road do a few nights a year. We run a golf day and things like that.”
Over 5 million pilgrims flock to Lourdes every season and the area has much to do. The programme for each Across group is carefully planned for the group that contains all ages: “We do all the religious things once because we take a lot of children with us and they can easily get fed up of lots of masses and things like that. We do a lot of day trips up the Pyrénées Mountains and we do Lourdes Lake as well. It’s busy all the time.”
When asked if the charity will continue for another thirty years, Ben answers almost certainly: “Oh yes, I don’t know whether I’ll be around or not but it will continue as long as we can. There’s a very strong team, my wife Christina does all the paperwork and stuff like that so she’s a fantastic asset to it. Five or six of the helpers have been with us for 26 years actually which is a long time.”
For more information on Anerley Across, go to: http://anerleyacross.org.uk/.
For more information on Across, go to: http://www.across-uk.org/.