Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust: Family charity opens new centre in Newry
2nd June 2020 - BBC News
A family-run repatriation fund that has helped more than 200 families across the island of Ireland has opened a new centre in Newry, County Down.
The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust was set up three years ago by the Bell family after a personal tragedy.
Colin Bell’s 26-year-old son, Kevin, was killed in a suspected hit-and-run in New York in June 2013.
Since then, the charity has helped hundreds of families whose loved ones have died away from home.
The trust has been operating out of the new office for just three weeks. Until recently, it had carried out most of its work from Kevin’s family home in Newry.
‘Get everything done’
Mr Bell said the trust had “taken over” the house, with filing cabinets and boxes taking up space in bedrooms. They were offered an office in Rooney’s Meadow at Whitegates Community Business Park in Newry, which is where I meet him early in the morning.
He shows me around and tells me that the new centre means they can “get everything done, park it and go home”.
“If there’s a repatriation ongoing we can do it over the phone, but we’re not living with it 24/7,” added Mr Bell.
It can cost several thousand pounds to repatriate bodies and, until the trust was established, families had to pay themselves because neither the UK or Irish governments cover the expense.
In the aftermath of Kevin’s death, friends and people in Newry raised about £150,000 towards the cost of his repatriation from the US. However, after Kevin’s American employers agreed to pay to transport his body home, the Bell family decided to use the money to help other families who faced the same situation.
Mr Bell said: “Whenever a family does get that devastating news – they don’t know who to turn to and what we can do is take it out of their hands and we’ll make the arrangements we’ll get them home.”
He described the trust as “Kevin’s legacy” and said although the work can often bring back memories evoking the loss of his son, the work is “therapeutic” and keeps Kevin’s name alive.
To date, the trust has arranged 217 repatriations to almost every county in Ireland.
One of those was 24-year-old Joe McDermott, from Omagh, County Tyrone, who died in a building site accident in Australia in December 2015.
His sister Laura said her family would never be able to repay the trust for helping them to get Joe’s body back home.
“Joe was only out in Australia for four weeks when he passed away,” Miss McDermott said.
“Within an hour of us hearing the news, the Claddagh Association in Perth phoned us to say everything was organised and that the Kevin Bell Trust would be paying for everything.”
She had not heard of the trust before Joe’s death, but described the help her family received as “such a relief”.
“When you are in the midst of such heartbreak and grief the way we were, we just could not have coped with trying to organise something on that scale, and to know somebody out there was taking care of it and Joe was going to come home to us was such a relief,” she said.
Her family have since raised money for the trust, in a bid to repay the Bell family for their generosity, but Miss McDermott said they will “never be able to repay them fully”.
“We have a lovely relationship with them, and it’s so nice to see my mum and dad speaking to them – two people who know what they’re going through is so comforting.
“They do such extraordinary things. We’ll never, ever be able to repay them, the only token of appreciation we can give is continue fundraising for them,” she said.
Michael Douglas, from the Greater Shankill area of Belfast, also needed emergency financial assistance from the trust when his 30-year-old sister Heather died suddenly in the USA in November 2014. Image copyright Michael Douglas Image caption Heather Douglas, 30, died suddenly when she was in the US carrying out voluntary work
He said his family wanted to get Heather home as soon as possible, but they were faced with immediate costs of between £8-10,000.
“Repatriation isn’t an easy process, but Colin Bell was there,” he said.
“To phone a man I’ve never spoken to before, on a Friday afternoon and spring that on him, my family probably could have gotten the money together but it wouldn’t have been as quick.
“All I had to do was send him the details and she was on a flight to Belfast the next morning,” said Mr Douglas.
He has since met Mr Bell and said his drive to help families who have gone through such a distressing experience is “amazing”. Image copyright KBRT Image caption Kevin Bell’s family have made it their mission to help other families who lose a loved one in sudden or tragic circumstances abroad
“It’s the support they give – it’s not just the financial side. It’s the expertise and advice,” he added.
“The trust is an essential thing, they’ll help anyone.”
The entire Bell family is involved in the trust and Colin Bell stressed that the support they get from all over Ireland – and the new centre in Newry – means they can continue helping families from every community who need it when tragedy occurs.
There is a photo of Kevin behind Mr Bell’s desk in the new centre, and I ask him what he thinks his son would have made of the trust.
“Kevin always said he’d be famous, Kevin was a big character,” Mr Bell said.
“He loved life, and he’d be proud that his name’s being kept alive.”
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