Maryland group seeks to establish L’Arche community for people with disabilities

Eileen Schofield of L'Arche Greater Washington, D.C. accepts a certificate of appreciation from Quest for L'Arche Maryland leader Jeanne Kuhn. Photo by Paul Popernack

Group homes in Frederick County that house people with developmental disabilities do a great job, Sabillasville resident Jeanne Kuhn said, but for the past three years or so, she and a group of about 15 others have been working to introduce a different kind of group home that offers a more close-knit sense of family for its residents.

They, along with volunteers at Mount St. Mary’s University and St. Katherine Drexel Catholic Church in Frederick, are trying to establish a local community of L’Arche USA. They’ve been meeting with people among the developmental disabilities community monthly, recently at St. Katherine Drexel, building the community support needed to establish an official L’Arche community. These events also feature games, arts and crafts, and dancing, Kuhn said.

The community is seeking to move to a pre-project phase in which a board of directors will be established, she said.

“People have been very faithful in supporting it,” Kuhn said.

L’Arche was founded in 1964 in France by Jean Vanier. There are 17 established L’Arche communities in the U.S., including in Washington and Virginia. L’Arche communities typically work as homes in which people with developmental disabilities live together as partners with volunteers who also act as assistants, according to John Cook, executive director of L’Arche for the Greater Washington area.

On Friday, January 19, Cook and a longtime community member with an intellectual disability spoke at St. Katharine Drexel about L’Arche to the group. He said prospects for a chapter in Frederick County are good, particularly because the group here is strong, he said. The challenge in Maryland is that the state typically supports larger providers to the intellectually disabled, which do a good job, but the state tends to discourage smaller startups, in part out of a concern, justified in Cook’s estimation, that they may not be financially viable over the long term.

“L’Arche is bit of an exception because we have a capacity to fund-raise that some don’t,” he said. Needs are met because L’Arche keeps costs low, and because the organization tends to have a broad appeal for people who want to see more communities that integrate people who are usually not.

Including those left out

Historically, people with intellectual disabilities have been among the groups that most people leave out and leave behind, Cook said.

At best, they have been treated as a benign burden and at worst, as a danger to society that must be eliminated, he said.

“The trend has been to segregate as much as possible,” Cook said.

L’Arche was founded by Roman Catholics in a small French village out of a vision that God sees every person as necessary, he said. Participants in L’Arche communities then work to discover how and why people who are believed by most of society to be unnecessary are needed.

This is done by assistants and the intellectually disabled immersing themselves in the lives of one another.

“In that process we discover the quiet gifts of people with intellectual disabilities,” Cook said.

An example Cook related was that one day, when he was sitting at his desk, feeling down, a community member who is particularly sensitive to people’s feelings put her arms around his neck and held him for a time, he said.

“And I felt myself reviving,” Cook said.

People he’s met through 30 years of working with L’Arche may often be quite sensitive to people’s inner states or have a gift for hospitality, he said. If provided the appropriate conditions, they can also be loyal and effective workers, he said.

L’Arche communities also have a spiritual element, Cook said, including daily prayers and worship on the weekends, and though they were founded in the Roman Catholic Church tradition, they quickly spread throughout the world and include people of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and other faith traditions, including those who are not affiliated with any religion.

“Our commitment is to support each person in their own spiritual or faith journey … where everyone has enough and everyone has a place of honor,” Cook said.

Article by Nicholas Stern reprinted with permission of The Frderick News-Post and Randall Family, LLC as appearing in the online edition at www.fredericknewspost.com.

Contact us to connect with Jeanne Kuhn.