By Elisabeth Román
When Jean Vanier was invited in 1964 by his friend and mentor Fr. Thomas Philippe to visit a small French village north of Paris, the son of a prominent Canadian family had no idea how it would forever change his life and the live of others. Fr. Thomas, chaplain of an institution where men with mental disabilities were housed, also invited Vanier to visit the village’s psychiatric hospital.
Moved by the inhumane conditions in the psychiatric hospital, Vanier rented a small house and invited two mentally disabled men, Raphael and Philippe, to leave the hospital and come share their lives with him in the new home. Together the unlikely trio formed a community and named their home L’Arche, which means “The Ark” in French, a symbolic message that they were all in the same boat. Vanier, who is 84, still lives in the home.
From this first community, born in the tiny French village and in the Catholic tradition, many other communities have emerged in various cultural and religious traditions. Today L’Arche communities, where people of faith, live and worship alongside intellectually disabled adults, have grown into a global community with homes in 40 countries.
In the United States, the first L’Arche community was founded in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1972. Today, L’Arche USA includes 16 communities and several emerging communities. The U.S. communities have a relationship of solidarity and exchange resources with L’Arche communities in the Caribbean and Latin America.
At L’Arche, persons with a developmental disability are known as “core members,” and “assistants” are those who come to share life with them. Assistants, who are paid, share in the daily life activities of the core members. Their mission is to build a relationship of mutual care and support with persons with disabilities; to foster a home life of unity, mutual respect and participation by all members; and provide direct care and skill building for core members including personal care needs, money management, medical care, appointments, family and work connections, household chores, medications, meal preparation, and transportation.
“We cook and eat together; we have dances and take trips together. It’s about sharing our lives and not putting someone in front of a window. We currently have 265 core members in the U.S. Each of our homes has only 4 or 5 members living in the homes and we welcome core members to live in the communities forever. This is their home,” explained Anna Hutto, Director of Development and Communications for L’Arche USA. “When you start a community you are welcoming the intellectually disabled into a new life, they live here until they die.”
Over 5,000 young adults have shared their lives with intellectually disabled adults in homes throughout the U.S. Hutto says that some come through AmeriCorps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Campus Ministries. A lot of young people also apply online at www.larcheusa.org.
While most young people stay for a year or two, some people have seen this as a calling and stay forever. “We are trying to get young people to imagine this as a vocation for life; to help them be fulfilled professionally and spiritually and stay as long as they want. This work brings a joy that changes our lives. We are serving people and enriching our spirit. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Does the possibility of coming into contact with people who have disabilities scare you? What could you offer? What could you learn from this experience?