Last month, an elderly gentleman’s group got to experience what might literally be the trip of a lifetime as they travelled to Valencia, Spain, thanks to the Bluebell Community Development Project (CDP).
For many of them, it was a first trip outside of Ireland. Tommy Coombes, who manages the CDP, on behalf of the Canals Community Partnership, led the charge for this unique expedition.
“I’m interested in life’s journey. There are 60 occupied housing units here in Bluebell, and they are occupied mainly by men. These are gents who would [in many cases have had tough lives]. We have tended to experience a strong sense of apathy amongst a lot of the men in this community,” Tommy explained.
Tommy, a PHD student in Maynooth University, has worked in Bluebell for over seven years now. He has worked hard to try and promote health and a sense of well-being with these older men, in the hopes that it will bring them out of their shells, which seems to have been successful.
“We’ve organised various trips, gone out fishing for example. We tend to try take these chances. Importantly, we do what the men want, not what we want.”
This philosophy was what led to this whole trip coming to life.
“One of the men a while ago said: ‘Why don’t we just get out of here for a while and do something?’ While you had a few lads up for it, with places like Limerick mentioned, he goes: ‘No I mean out of the bloody country!’
“So since last January or February they’ve been saving to go to Valencia in Spain. Initially, when someone suggested Valencia because they had a mate who owns a pub there, most thought he actually meant Valentia in County Kerry. It became sort of a dream or wish and we set out to get funding through fundraisers. We engaged with local councillors, with Sinn Fein helping out massively,” explained Tommy.
With most men having never left the country before, the organisers were met with many obstacles, most notably, the organisation of passports. Ed Nolan, also of the CDP, has lived in the community for less than a year. As the new kid on the block, he was tasked with the challenge of helping to get everything together.
“Tommy asked me to organise the Valencia trip, so myself and a couple of others did the work for it. It took a lot of organisation, but we got there in the end. It’s all been worthwhile,” explained Ed.
“Some people here hadn’t even had a passport before. It took a lot of work getting everything together, especially with first time passports. I had a scheme where everyone gave €3-4 a week so that when it came to the day, you would have a few bob in your pocket at the very least,” Ed added.
Tommy, who himself is in his sixties, works hard to try and make sure that these men get the chance to continue to live fulfilled lives through retirement, and in this case, experience brand new things.
“I suppose the idea was to allow the men to experience the life of other older men in another culture. Also, the adventure. With most men never having a passport, it was a serious challenge at first. Fears of flying, fears of the unknown. A general fear of being taken out of their own comfort zone. A lot of these men have a very set framework,” Tommy explained.
“From getting up in the morning to going to bed at night, they have a strict structure that’s very hard to step out of. A lot of work from all the staff was pivotal in helping the men realise they could do this,” he added.
While it might not seem like much of a battle to those lucky enough to travel abroad on a regular basis, it unfortunately was too daunting a leap for some.
“Maybe to us who have gone away and travelled, it may not be a big deal, but for these lads, who may have barely seen the upstairs of a Dublin Bus, it’s a massive step. So much so, that a few men actually had to pull out because they couldn’t take that leap of faith,” Tommy revealed.
However, one man that could make the trip was a resident suffering from cancer, who had just finished his final chemo treatment. As Ed recalled:
“We didn’t ask him to come along originally as his chemo and radiology wouldn’t have been finished until the end of September when we had originally planned on going. Now because of funding and that we ended up going on the 18th of October, [he] was finished up by then.
“Four or five days before we left I asked him if he would come. We checked with the doctors and he was well enough to go. As it turned out, he hadn’t got a passport either. I went down to the passport office morning, noon and night and we managed to get it literally the day before we were going. It was great.”
On reflection, the whole event was deemed a massive success for Bluebell CDP, and for the group of men who got to have a life-changing trip that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Ed finished: “It was a great little experience for all the lads. Even some in wheelchairs got to go around and see what was an absolutely beautiful city. And of course we had an old sing-song in the evenings. You never know, this could be a yearly thing.”