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American special children's pilgrimage group.

The American Special Children's Pilgrimage Group (ASCPG) was founded in 1995, under the philosophical umbrella of the England-based Pilgrimage Trust (HCPT), the organization that began this special kind of group pilgrimage in the 1950s. Each year, the Pilgrimage Trust makes the journey during Easter Week, and the children and young adults with disabilities stay in the same hotel as their caretakers, instead of in a hospital or hospice, as had been the custom with previous pilgrimage groups. (To learn more about HCPT, visit Since its inception, the nonprofit ASCPG, based in Bergenfield, New Jersey, has been operated entirely by volunteers, working in close conjunction with HCPT and its members yet functioning as a separate entity.

ASCPG co-founder and chairman, Gerry Flood, became involved with the Pilgrimage Trust in his native Ireland in 1979, helping to raise funds for the pilgrimages. He had never made the journey himself. Tough economic times in Ireland precipitated his move to the United States. "The idea never left me," he says, of the pilgrimage groups. With the help of HCPT headquarters in England, as well as his friend Joe Earley, who has worked with the Irish Pilgrimage Trust (IHCPT), Flood and his wife Rosemarie founded ASCPG in November 1995.

Flood's efforts to obtain insurance to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1996 and 1997 were unsuccessful, and he was unable to take children, although he made the journey himself to gain the experience. After two unsuccessful years of efforts to obtain insurance, he was "ready to throw in the towel," he says. He had worked with the pilgrimage group from Dublin that second year, and on the final evening of the trip in Lourdes, he recalls, he went to the Grotto and prayed.

On returning home, he expressed his discouragement to Dr. Bill Miller, a local physician with whom he had spoken about the idea for the American pilgrimage group. Not long after that conversation, Miller listened to a homily given by Father Peter Palmisano, at his church, St. Joseph Parish, in Oradell, New Jersey. Father Peter spoke of how close he felt to Our Lady of Lourdes. Miller then connected Father Peter and Flood.

"She (Mary) never lets you down," Flood says. "He (Father Peter) wanted to get kids to Lourdes, but he didn't know how," says Flood. "I knew how, but we didn't have kids." Miller also helped to solicit initial funding and was able to involve nurses and other medical personnel.

ASCPG finally was able to obtain insurance, clearing the way for the first pilgrimage with children to occur in 1998. "I'll never have Easter dinner at home again," Flood recalls calling his wife and telling her, so profound was his experience in Lourdes. Flood has been to Lourdes each Easter since. His wife makes the trip every other year.

ASCPG's volunteer organizers begin planning each year's pilgrimage two weeks after returning from the current year's pilgrimage and taking some time to rest. Many of the volunteers have returned year after year to help with the pilgrimage, finding it an indispensable part of their lives, and at the same time ensuring for ASCPG an experienced volunteer staff that also seeks newcomers.

For parents to feel confident that it is safe to send their children on a pilgrimage, particularly so far away from home and outside of the country, ASCPG sets rules and trains its volunteer helpers. The reputation of the organization and its ability to continue this service are dependent upon taking this care. Pilgrimage details follow:

ASCPG Philosophy

ASCPG encourages children and volunteers of all faiths and backgrounds to attend a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The group takes children ages nine and older as well as young adults with disabilities. ASCPG uses a group system, with eight to ten children per group, a group leader, and two helpers to accompany each child.

Because the trip is intended to provide a unique experience and independence for the children and young adults, and a respite for their parents, particularly the mother, who frequently does not have a break from providing care, "parents do not journey with the child, except under extreme circumstances," Flood says.

Medical Care

Families who are interested in having their child make the pilgrimage to Lourdes complete an application, which is reviewed by ASCPG medical staff to determine whether the child or young adult can travel safely, without health risk.

Two physicians and several nurses accompany the pilgrimage group each year. Families and caretakers, referred to as "helpers," complete a confidential information form, recording medications necessary for the trip. The second floor of the hotel in Lourdes is set up as a pharmacy to meet any unexpected medication needs of the pilgrims and helpers. Hospitals in Lourdes are available for any emergency needs.

During the trip, the nurse completes a daily report of each pilgrim's status, including input from the child's helpers. When a pilgrim or helper is sick, the physicians or nurse will care for them, staying up through the night if necessary.

Open Door Policy

ASCPG stresses its open door policy and safety measures. It is the group's policy to "never, never" have an adult alone with a child, says Flood. This rule is emphasized during training and in the literature given to helpers prior to the trip.

During the stay in Lourdes, all of the children are on one floor of the hotel. Two helpers at a time take turns in shifts from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., patrolling the floor while the pilgrims sleep, to ensure that all is safe. Each helper takes one four-hour shift during the week. If a pilgrim needs assistance with bathing or toileting, two helpers must be present at all times.

Travel & Accommodation

One volunteer has made all of the travel arrangements for ASCPG since the pilgrimages began, booking flights, buses, and hotel accommodations for all of the pilgrims and volunteer staff.

In recent years, ASCPG has traveled via Air France, which has been accommodating of its needs, according to Flood. ASCPG enjoys the benefit of a police escort for transitions at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark International Airport, Paris Charles De Gaulle International Airport, and the Toulouse International Airport, outside of Lourdes.

At Hotel La Solitude, where ASCPG stays while in Lourdes, the group works with manager Francois for any specific needs that arise. The hotel has always been very accommodating, Flood indicates.


Volunteers interested in working as a helper for a pilgrim complete an application that is reviewed by ASCPG staff to determine whether they will be selected.

Each helper will be assigned either as the primary or secondary helper for a pilgrim. (Primary helpers will have had previous experience on the pilgrimage, while secondary helpers may be new to the pilgrimage.) Prior to the trip, both helpers make at least three visits to the pilgrim, using one of the visits to take the child or young adult outside of the home. Helpers get to know the child's habits, likes, and dislikes, as well as special information such as how the family might prefer to transfer the child from a wheelchair. All helpers participate in a mandatory training session.

Helpers are not intended to act as parents, but are more like a big brother or big sister, says Emily Sullivan, one of the volunteer organizers

If a child is sick during the stay in Lourdes, both helpers must stay back from group activities to oversee the child.


Children and young adult pilgrims with disabilities make the trip to Lourdes at no cost. Each of the helpers is asked to pay $1,000 for the trip or to recruit a sponsor for themselves. The actual cost for the pilgrimage is about $1,800 per person, Flood says, and covers travel, flight insurance, and hotel and meal costs for the week. Funding for each child or young adult and the remaining $800 needed for each helper is covered by fundraisers such as golf outings and dinner dances throughout the year, as well as donations that volunteers help to raise. ASCPG also relies on contribution of services or facilities, friends, businesses, and organizations.

Flood believes that the organization will one day reach all 50 states. He is actively pursuing expansion to other regions beyond its current locations of northern New Jersey, New York City, and the Philadelphia/southern New Jersey area.

For more information about the American Special Children's Pilgrimage Group, visit ASCPG chairman Gerry Flood can be contacted at: (201) 873-8054;; or ASCPG, P.O. Box 633, Bergenfield, New Jersey 07621.
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Article Details
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Author:Caroff, Maria
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Organization overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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