Northern Ireland

Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust: NI charity has assisted in 100 repatriations

Colin Bell with a photo of his late son, Kevin
Image caption Colin Bell and his family set up the repatriation trust as a tribute to his 26-year-old son, Kevin, who died in suspected hit-and-run in New York in June 2013

A family-run charity that helps to bring the bodies of people who die abroad back to Ireland has assisted in its 100th repatriation.

The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust (KBRT) was set up just over two years ago by the Bell family from Newry, County Down, 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 bereaved father has made it his life's mission to help other families, whose loved ones die in sudden or tragic circumstances abroad.

It can cost several thousand pounds to repatriate bodies and, until the trust was established, families had to pay it themselves because neither the UK or Irish governments cover the expense.

Image copyright KBRT
Image caption Kevin Bell's friends helped to raise about £150,000 to help bring his body back to Northern Ireland in 2013

It can also be a lengthy and distressing process, often complicated by red tape and language barriers.

'Kevin's legacy'

Mr Bell, a retired teacher, now spends his days on the phone and computer to destinations all around the world, helping grieving strangers with the financial and administrative burdens that arise when someone dies far from home.

He often attends the funerals in person, and most of his weekends are taken up by fundraising events across Ireland.

When I call to interview him, I interrupt him at an undertakers' conference in Dublin, where he is promoting the work of the trust.

Colin's son had been a popular member of his local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club and in the aftermath of Kevin's death, friends and supporters in Newry raised about £150,000 towards the cost of his repatriation from the USA.

However, after Kevin's American employers agreed to pay to transport his body home, the Bells had to make a decision about what to do with the funds raised on their behalf.

"We had this huge amount of money, and we decided that we would use it - in Kevin's name - to help other families who were visited with the same tragedy," Colin said.

To date, they have arranged repatriations to almost every county in Ireland.

Image copyright KBRT
Image caption The all-island charity helps people from all counties and all backgrounds

The grim milestone of 100 was reached last week, but for Mr Bell, the statistic is proof that something positive has come out of his personal loss.

"We decided, when we were setting this up, this was going to be Kevin's legacy, that some good would come out of his death and that helps us, knowing that we are helping other people."

'Pressure'

Michael Douglas, from the Greater Shankill area of Belfast, was among those who needed emergency financial assistance from the trust when his 30-year-old sister Heather died suddenly in the USA.

"The American undertakers wouldn't release the body to the airport until payment was made," Mr Douglas said.

Image copyright Michael Douglas
Image caption Heather Douglas, 30, died suddenly in Baltimore, Maryland, while she was carrying out voluntary work with the homeless

Faced with an immediate bill of about £7,000 and a "race against time" to meet the flight booked to take Heather's body back home, Mr Douglas made contact with Mr Bell.

"That was literally the first conversation I had with him. I said 'look, sorry, but I have to phone you and ask you to pay this'. He said 'No problem, just email me all the stuff and leave it with me and I'll sort it out'," Mr Douglas recalled.

"Obviously, we're a working-class family, we probably could have got that money but it would have taken us a while to put it all together.

"So, to phone Colin Bell - never having spoken to him before - literally a phone call and he sorted it. It took a lot of pressure off me."

Image copyright Karen Wallace
Image caption Brendan Devenney, 24, died hours after arriving in India last year

Karen Wallace, from Mullingar, County Westmeath, had not heard of the trust until her 24-year-old brother, Brendan Devenney, died suddenly while travelling around Asia in December 2014.

His body was found his hotel room in India, just hours after he arrived in the country, and his cause of death is still unexplained.

'Very grateful'

She said the Bell family sorted the entire repatriation after just "one phone call" and managed to get his body home within a week.

"Only for the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, I don't know what we would have done," Mrs Wallace said.

"If we were to do it ourselves it would have taken at least three weeks, and then of course Christmas was going to fall in between that, so it could have been longer. We could have been waiting until after Christmas, so we were very, very grateful obviously.

"I couldn't admire them enough or thank them enough for what they have done for us," she added.

"I just think of what they went through themselves - they went through a tragedy themselves and it's still quite raw for them, and for them to be able to do this for other families, I think it's amazing."

The trust is very much a family affair. Kevin Bell was one of seven children and all his siblings, including his twin brother, are involved in the charity in some way, on a voluntary basis.

'Amazing support'

Asked about his plans for the future, Colin Bell vowed that the work of trust will continue.

"There's is hardly a weekend that there's not some fundraiser in some part of Ireland. We're getting amazing support from the people and we're very grateful for it," he said.

"Whenever I can't do it anymore, my sons and my daughters will take over and look after it.

"This is for the long-term."

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