Just Be Me

Jessica Duncan first heard about L’Arche in a way befitting the 21st century – on a podcast. She was intrigued by the words of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier and began reading about his work. When Jessica found out there was a local L’Arche community she wanted to volunteer but hesitated. “I was really drawn to it, but felt like it was really outside my comfort zone and wasn’t sure how to do it well…Would I do or say the wrong thing or make someone uncomfortable?” But she always thought “one day I will get over that hump and go volunteer at L’Arche.”

That one day arrived when Jessica started training to be a yoga teacher. Part of the teacher training required giving back: bringing yoga to communities that usually don’t have access to it. So she thought of L’Arche again!

People sit in chairs with their arms up, practicing yoga.

Chair yoga allows people of differing abilities to practice together!

She was still nervous however; Jessica grew up with an uncle who had an intellectual disability and as she got older, she became sensitive to not making him uncomfortable by anything she said or did. “I wanted to do the right thing.” When it came to interacting with people with intellectual disabilities in general Jessica said, “I was always so worried about making them uncomfortable or misunderstanding what they said and making them feel inadequate so that really held me back. I thought ‘I just won’t try’ because I’m too afraid to do the wrong thing.”

With this fear in the back of her mind, coming to dinner at one of the L’Arche homes felt like a manageable first step.

“I wanted to give myself an opportunity to fail,” said Jessica. “Can I do this? Will I be uncomfortable? So I came to dinner and it was lovely… there were certainly moments where I didn’t understand what people said or didn’t know how to answer a question…and that’s ok!” She continued, “There was no judgment coming from the other side, I felt very welcomed, and there was no ‘you should try harder’.”

At dinner, Jessica saw that “It was very clear they were all just a family:” everyone was helping each other, doing dishes, laughing, and conversing. “I felt very welcome and at home to just do my best and just be me. And to interact with other people as they are and not to have to change who I was or how they were to have the conversation.” Before the end of dinner, she thought, “I knew this [teaching yoga] could happen, it wouldn’t be without its challenges but I can do it.”

At that first dinner core family member Charles Clark, who has done yoga before, said he liked the “ohm” part of yoga classes: when the class takes a deep breath together and lets it out as a long “ohhhmmm” sound. So the very first class Jessica taught at L’Arche they started with “ohms.” “It’s always unnerving to lead the ohm in a regular class and you don’t know if anyone will join you,” Jessica said. But at her L’Arche class, everyone jumped right in!

Volunteering via yoga is different from other volunteering Jessica has done. With yoga, you are accommodating a lot of different needs all at once. Everyone who comes to yoga has different physical abilities and different emotional needs each day, she explained. “It’s always different. You can come in with a plan but it’s probably not going to unfold like you thought it would.” Jessica has been adapting communication styles as well, trying different ways to get the same message across with movement rather than words.

Core family member Charles participated in the yoga classes with Jessica. “I like it all. It’s good for you, you know,” he said about the class. “It’s real good, got a good instructor.” He also mentioned it was more advanced than yoga classes he had taken at work.

Lauren Stuart, an assistant, expressed how much she loved the restorative yoga class Jessica led for assistants: “I really enjoyed it. It allowed us all to be together and relax. It was kinda cool to find the different positions where we could still be focused on the breathing but allowing our minds to relax.”

Jessica found the works of Jean Vanier changed her thinking on being present to people with intellectual disabilities: “My perspective was always one of fragility,” she said, in which you might not know what to do and may misstep since people with intellectual disabilities have “different needs.” Jean Vanier taught that everyone has different needs – people with intellectual disabilities are not some “separate” other, we all have weakness and need and dependency. Instead of being concerned about doing the “wrong thing,” Jessica realized that it comes down to treating everyone with kindness and love.

Having overcome her hesitation, Jessica encourages anyone considering volunteering at L’Arche to reach out and see if it’s a good fit!

Fritz enjoyed yoga class from the couch – rest and relaxation are key to health!

Blog written by Mary Ellen Dingley

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