“We believe that each person, whether handicapped or not, has a unique and mysterious value.”
— Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche
On a recent visit to Barbara and Mary’s* home, I asked Barbara what she enjoyed the most about living there. “The people,” she replied.
Barbara and Mary are two of the 16 Core Members who reside in Syracuse’s L’Arche community. In each of the four L’Arche homes in the Syracuse area, four Core Members, who are people with developmental disabilities, live with two to four Assistants, who are people without disabilities.
“They live like a family,” said L’Arche’s Community Leader Peggy Harper. “They experience love and friendship and really care about one another.”
The first L’Arche community was created in 1964 by Jean Vanier near Paris, France. After meeting many people with developmental disabilities who were living in institutions, Vanier sought to change the situation and bought a small house for himself and two men with developmental disabilities to live in. He called the house “L’Arche,” which means “the Ark” in French. Inspired by his example, many people who visited him established other L’Arche communities around the world.
In 1973, Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, a Syracuse University professor, generated an interest in developing a L’Arche community in Syracuse. A year later, a group affiliated with Unity Kitchen invited Doug and Perry Mouncey to open the first residence in Syracuse. The second residence in the area was opened in 1978, the third in 1993 and the fourth in 2004. “It started out of a social activist movement to get these people out of institutions,” stated Harper.
Harper added that the Syracuse L’Arche community is one of 18 in the U.S. and one of 146 in 35 countries. L’Arche International is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the Syracuse community is celebrating its 40th.
According to a recent L’Arche press release, “L’Arche communities bear witness to the reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality and friendship. L’Arche makes explicit the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.”
Harper explained how the Assistants, when they first arrive at the residence, fully intend to serve the Core Members. “But what happens,” said Harper, “is that they receive more than they give.” Both the Assistants and the Core Members are transformed by the ensuing relationships that are based on mutuality, companionship and respect.
The Core Members and Assistants participate in the organization’s Day Habilitation program every week. They visit such places as the zoo, museums, bowling alleys and baseball games. Barbara enjoys outings to Syracuse’s Regional Market to purchase vegetables and fruits every Thursday, and Barbara and Mary recently attended a Syracuse Chiefs baseball game. “I enjoy baseball and I love the atmosphere,” commented Mary. “I cheered them on,” added Barbara.
The Assistants accompany the Core Assistants in their daily activities and are responsible for keeping them safe. They are also responsible for maintaining the home and for providing personal care as needed. The Assistants have the option of either living in or outside the home. Harper noted that included among the Assistants from the U.S. this year there are also Assistants from Germany, Sweden and South Korea.
Core Members also have weekly chores they are responsible for at their home. Barbara described the pleasure she gets from cooking dinner on Wednesday nights for those she lives with. “They love the food,” Barbara remarked. “My specialty is eggplant Parmesan.”
When I arrived at the home, Mary was in the midst of planning a trip to Lake George, N.Y. with the help of Assistant Kathy. Kathy, who has served with L’Arche for the last 11 years, said the residents are “like a part of my family.” She mentioned that Mary had even attended some of her own family functions with her.
“It’s not an institutional atmosphere here,” Kathy explained. “That’s what I like about it.”
Assistant Jamie enjoys her time in the home. She lives at home with her husband and nine-month-old daughter.
“I like being with them [Core Members],” said Jamie. “I see this place as a family and a community where we can be ourselves. I am doing things with them instead of for them. I feel like I’m rewarded every day.”
Prayer plays an integral part in the residents’ lives. They pray together every day after dinner, and every Tuesday night, they gather with the residents from the other three homes in the area to pray. It’s had a significant impact on Jamie’s life.
“Before I came here,” said Jamie, “I’d lost touch with my faith, but I have found it again. Praying has really helped. These guys have revitalized my faith.”
Once a month, prior to the Tuesday night prayer, a potluck supper is held for all the people of the homes and the community’s family.
Then, once a year, L’Arche sponsors an international potluck supper that features native foods from the countries of the international Assistants in the community. Each home performs a skit and presents a display that represents each country.
“That’s what makes us different,” remarked Harper. “Most agencies that have homes are isolated from one another. We’re the only one that’s a faith-based community.”
On August 30, the Syracuse L’Arche community celebrated its 40th anniversary with a large picnic at Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church in DeWitt. “Celebration is a big part of the L’Arche community,” remarked Harper.
It was plain to see, as I took a tour of the home, that celebrations such as birthdays and other significant moments had not been forgotten among the residents of the house. Posters and other materials conveying congratulatory wishes were displayed on the Core Members’ bedroom doors. Inspirational pieces of art were evident throughout the house. In the kitchen, a plaque with the phrase “ Jesus Loves Me” was displayed on the wall.
A peek inside Core Member Tony’s room revealed an open Bible perched on a stand. Tony talked about his experience of living in the home. “It’s nice living here,” he said. “I like the people.” His bedroom also housed many trophies he had won while bowling, a passion of his. Tony works part time at a car dealership in North Syracuse.
Core Member Pat also works outside the home on a part time basis. Energetic and outgoing, Pat talked enthusiastically about her visits to Jamesville Beach to swim and picnic. “I like to keep busy,” said Pat.
Assistant Amy has been a member of the L’Arche community since 2010. She returned to the home this summer after studying for her Master of Divinity degree in Boston. “It feels like home,” commented Amy. “Here, we are focused on relationships and friendships. I don’t see it as a job.”
Harper said that the L’Arche community is always in need of Assistants, volunteers and board members. “We’re always looking for Assistants who want to be on a spiritual journey with us,” she said.
For more information on serving as an Assistant, contact L’Arche Assistant Director Teasa Luke at (315) 479-8088.
* Note: The last names of L’Arche’s Core Members and Assistants have been omitted from this article to protect their privacy.