A leisurely conversation-filled dinner with not a single phone on the table. Religion that was welcoming and inviting (and-not-even-a-tiny-bit-divisive). Morning greetings of "Wow, looking good!" Candlelit group meditations. An offer of a ride into town, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie (literally... it was blueberry and it was dang good). People who asked "How are you?" and like really really wanted to know the answer.
Was this real life? Was I in still in America? I felt like I had entered utopia. It was like God himself had heard my yearning for a life lived more present, with better connections, and with more time spent looking into eyes than at screens. And just for me, he made a place called L'Arche.
But, L'Arche wasn't created for me. It was created for the millions of people with disabilities around the world. In 147 communities across 35 countries, L'Arche provides housing and support services for individuals with disabilities. And I was lucky enough to be invited in for a few nights to visit...
In 1964 a man named Jean Vanier invited two men with disabilities to live with him. They left the institutions they lived in to "share life" in Trosly-Breuil, a village an hour outside Paris. The organization expanded to the United States in 1972. I spent time in two United States L'Arche communities: L'Arche Boston North and L'Arche Greater Washington DC (GWDC). Fifty years of growth and international expansion later, the organization still refects Vanier's founding vision. Catholicism and spirituality still shape their values. Focus still remains on fostering life-giving relationships between people with and without disabilities. Each community still adheres to the same mission the three original L'Arche members defined themselves by:
We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities belonging to an International Federation. Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.
At L'Arche, daily life takes a different form -- it's more intentional, more connected, more present, more generous. At L'Arche, disability services, or what most perceive as standard practice in the space, also looks different. L'Arche challenges many of the structural approaches taken as the norm. They use different language in service delivery; they structure their staff in a way that prioritizes integration and relationships over direct support; they reject a clinical approach. None of this happens by accident. Rather it's a series of deeply intentional choices meant to foster greater respect for and integration of the people with disabilities they serve.
Language used is the most readily apparent differentiation at L'Arche. For example, when "Assistants" are working in a L'Arche home, they refer to it as "Sharing Time" (rather than on shift, on the clock, etc). Sharing Time sets a tone for the "work" of L'Arche to be less about being on the clock performing tasks and duties and more about supporting people, understanding what individuals need when, and building real relationships. Vanessa Henry is the Community Coordinator at L'Arche Boston North and served as a case manager for people with disabilities in Virginia before coming to L'Arche. Henry says concepts like Sharing Time and other intentional choices about language and service delivery make L'Arche different from other providers she's encountered. "We're not just here to take care of basic needs but to feed people's souls," Vanessa explained, "We're gaining something and forming people."
At closer look, one can see that there are lots of things -- beyond language -- that happen at L'Arche which look, sound, and feel different than other disability service providers. You hear the world love a lot. Physical contact is encouraged. Hugs are never in short supply and you may even find community members and assistants exchanging backrubs and food massages after a long day. Assistants and core members take vacation together, go out with friends, to family events, and into the community. L'Arche Core Members with disabilities are supported to make choices and take appropriate risks to the fullest extent possible. L'Arche works hard to dissolve the boundaries that traditionally exist between direct service professionals and the individuals they support.
Executive Director of L'Arche GWDC, Cook, says that L'Arche's model challenges "what it means to be a professional" in the disability service space in the best possible way. At L'Arche being a professional doesn't look like stacks of paperwork, daily checklists, and careful regulation. Instead it looks like thoughtful choices about how people with disabilities can live their fullest life and deep engagement in daily integrated life. They announce their unique culture and approach up front when recruiting staff and support it through training and coaching. Cook and the L'Arche community recognizes that barriers (or lack of barriers) at L'Arche "is not a one size fits all". People will connect differently with different people, relationships will evolve over time, and barriers will shift.
Using different language, defining schedules and timetables outside the norms, and rejecting a clinical or medical model can make things challenging for L'Arche. They have to think differently about how they comply with extensive state and federal regulations. At times, they may even challenge the structures and regulations they're expected adhere to. They may open themselves up to more risk by not keeping an "arms length" approach typical of disability service providers.
L'Arche has decided to embrace risk in favor of authentic relationships and life experiences. They've chosen to encourage relationships over direct-support. They're determined to support self-determination over standardization. They've done so on purpose. They've decided that doing things intentionally different makes life measurably better for the people who live and work there. And maybe all of us -- particularly those who make the policies that govern support and services for those with disabilities -- could learn something from their approach.
At the end of the day, whether or not we're diagnosed with a disability, we all seek similar things. Community. Respect. Joy. Risk. Human connection. Spirituality. And, heck, even some soul-quenching love. Beyond housing and direct-support, it's those innate and universal human desires which L'Arche quite intentionally seeks to nourish across their international community.
"When we love and respect people, revealing to them their value, they can begin to come out from behind the walls that protect them." Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche