“Community is not built upon heroic actions, but rather upon the love shown in the little things of daily life.”
— Jean Vanier
You know when you learn something and can’t believe you’ve never heard about it before? Then within a few days, you see it or hear it mentioned a half dozen times? Well, this happened to me recently regarding L’Arche.
When I first moved into my neighbourhood in 2007, it was no time before I met a lovely neighbour I call Nanny Pippy.
Since then, I run into her or her equally lovely husband several times a week.
One day last year, we met in the street and Nanny made a comment on my column and said something like, It’s fine and dandy when the kids are alright, but what about when the kids are not alright?
Then she told me about an organization called L’Arche which helps the intellectually challenged.
I had to admit I had never heard of it.
“L’Arche,” she said, “you know, started by Jean Vanier.”
I didn’t know Jean Vanier from Jean Valjean.
But one doesn’t argue with Nanny Pippy, so I scurried home to Google this organization.
Within days of looking it up, I read an article in Running Room magazine about L’Arche.
Then my old neighbour, a Jesuit priest, wrote a book review that included references to L’Arche.
When I asked my eldest sister if she had heard of L’Arche, she said, “Yes, remember, I sang the L’Arche song (‘Lord Jesus, of You I Will Sing as I Journey’) at Dad’s funeral. You know Jean Vanier?”
My running partner knew all about him. As did my mother. And another friend.
Had I been living in a hole?
So this past Sunday I went to a local L’Arche interest group meeting and here is what I learned. L’Arche is a reference to Noah’s Ark, a “place of refuge and belonging,” explains Evelyn Friesen, mother of 25-year-old Adrian.
The organization was started in 1964 when Jean Vanier (who is son of former governor general, Georges Vanier, and his wife, Pauline) was living in France and invited two intellectually challenged people to come share his home.
This led to Vanier’s idea of establishing other homes or “communities” in which intellectually disabled people live alongside able-minded people as equals.
The idea has spread to more than 40 countries, where L’Arche communities are now in operation. In Atlantic Canada, there are 19 L’Arche houses and four apartments.
There are, however, no L’Arche communities in Newfoundland and Labrador (the closest is in Nova Scotia).
Nanny Pippy is out to change that. She, along with about 15-30 other people, meet monthly to pave the way for a L’Arche community in the St. John’s area.
Right now they are called Cornerstone Housing Society, “an incorporated charitable organization embracing the mission and values of L’Arche.”
About half the people who meet have someone close to them who is intellectually disabled. The other half, like Nanny Pippy, have somehow been touched by a L’Arche community or simply believe in the idea of inclusion.
People with intellectual disabilities are contributing members of society and can offer as much to so-called normal people as the normal people can to them, explains Petra Sunner, mother of 12-year-old Anton, a Grade 7 student at St. Paul’s Junior High School.
Anton has dark hair and equally dark eyes. He is non-verbal, and although he has not been diagnosed, he is intellectually delayed.
Anton loves opera arias, preferably sung by Netrebko, Bartolli, Battle
or Kaufmann. He brings joy to all who meet him with his sharp wit and inquisitive eyes.
“Our goal is to build a L’Arche house in Newfoundland, understanding that our own children may never (get a chance to) live in that community,” says Petra, who, like most parents of intellectually-challenged children, often worries about who will care for her child when she no longer can.
“I believe we will get there,” says Friesen, the chair of the committee. “We want to build the community to support an actual L’Arche community. We want to introduce ourselves to government as another housing alternative for people with developmental disabilities.”
“L’Arche homes and programs operate according to a not-for-profit ‘community model’ which is distinct from client-centred, medical, or social service models of care,” reads the L’Arche Nova Scotia site. “At L’Arche:
‰ People with intellectual disabilities, and those who assist them, live together in homes and apartments, or work together in day programs, sharing life with one another and building community as responsible adults;
‰ Everyone is invited to take responsibility for the growth and life of the home, program and community to which they belong;
‰ Everyone is believed to have the capacity to grow and to mature into adulthood, and to make a contribution to society, regardless of the physical or intellectual limitations with which they may be living.”
So, unlike the group home setting where employees work shifts to take care of the intellectually disabled, the L’Arche model means so-called normal people, known as assistants, live with the intellectually disabled as a family in a home setting.
The mission of L’Arche is “to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities. … In L’Arche communities, people relate to one another more as friends or as peers, than as ‘clients and staff,’ or as ‘patients and caregivers,’ or ‘consumers and providers,’” reads the literature.
“Although we’ll (eventually be) looking for a physical house, it is much more than that,” says Don Rowe, whose son spent a year and a half living as an assistant in a L’Arche community in Cape Breton. “It’s more than forming communities where people live, (it’s a place where) everyone has something to offer.”
“L’Arche is about accepting people as they are, including ourselves,” says Don’s wife, Marie Rowe.
“The way you learn the value of a human being is by opening up to a person with an intellectual disability instead of turning away,” says Petra. “You get something out of it if you allow it. What you get out of it is hard to put into words, but it is something like the realization of what ‘value of a human being’ really means — that there is no difference between the ‘not disabled’ or ‘disabled.’ Their value is the same.”
“We want someone to love them, value them and mourn them when they’re gone,” says Evelyn Friesen.
“To accept them,” adds her husband, Mel.
March 10 marked the one-year anniversary of the L’Arche-inspired Cornerstone Housing Society. For more information, go to www.larche.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who knows? If you go to a social event, you might even be lucky enough to meet Nanny Pippy.
Susan Flanagan is a writer and avid reader who highly recommends “The Boy in the Moon” by Globe and Mail reporter Ian Brown. She can be reached at email@example.com