My experience at L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. as a French summer volunteer

Written by Lucas Thoraval 

July 4th, 2019, 5 pm. I get out of the plane coming from France. The first thing I notice is the heat. The insufferable heat. It reminds me of my experience as a summer volunteer from the year before at L’Arche Mobile, Alabama. I spent a month there, which I completely loved, and that’s why I’m here in the US once again, to live this wonderful experience which is being a summer volunteer at L’Arche in the USA.

So here I am, at the bus stop at Dulles airport. Of course, I had to fly out on the 4th of July without realizing that it was the national holiday. So yeah, traffic is disrupted, the bus routes are changed… But I get to the house called the “Red Door” which is the house where some assistants and volunteers live, and I am greeted by the Home Life Leader, Meredith, and a fellow French volunteer who’s already been here 6 months. That’s one particularity of L’Arche: the diversity when it comes to background and nationality. The first night with the assistants encompasses watching (or trying to watch) the fireworks, and then board games. Kind of like a family I’m already feeling a part of. However difficult my travelling here may have been, it is all already worth it, and all discomfort has disappeared.

My first days are eventful but in a good sense. First, I meet everybody. In addition to the assistants and volunteers, I make the acquaintance of the 5 core members (adults with intellectual disabilities) of the DC homes: Eileen, Debora, Johnny, Michael and Andrew.

I get to know them a little bit more in different settings the first weekend. Eileen has organized a yard sale for her DVDs and I see her interact with different potential clients, as the very good saleswoman she is. I accompany Michael and Daisy, an assistant, to Virginia to a pug meet-up: Michael has a passion for those dogs, understandably. We then grab a coffee at “Micky-D’s”, which I learn is a long-time tradition for Michael.

Back at the house, I watch TV with Debora, which I learn later is often playing either Sanford and Son or I Love Lucy. Johnny then starts talking to me in Spanish while writing his name on a piece of paper –  even though I have no knowledge of Spanish, I begin to understand that what he’s talking to me about is poverty in countries where they don’t have air conditioning, which I find extremely interesting. And so in as little as two days, I have already had many interactions with every core member, which I am grateful for.

The last core member, Andrew, will become the one I will spend most of my time with due to my schedule. He actually lives in another apartment, which we call the Euclid apartment. I get a glimpse of his life on Monday morning. First things first: Andrew signs me good morning. Andrew communicates with his own set of signs, inspired by ASL. He then proceeds to show me his room, with Sesame Street decorations and books. He then opens his computer and turns on the TV at the same time, and watches his favorite shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street (especially “the best of Bert and Ernie”). At 8:30 am, it’s time to walk to the van in order to get to Andrew’s day program. Note that this walk in the morning will become essential to my routine as a volunteer as every morning I will help the assistant by rolling the wheelchair to the van. While we walk, Andrew tells me that he went swimming the weekend before (putting his fist on his nose and pulling it down), and that he got some cake for his birthday a few months ago. That’s what’s great with Andrew: he’s always cheerful and never stops interacting with you, he wants you to talk to him, and he wants to tell you about everything.

Then every core member goes to their day program. During my stay, I get to see each of the programs, and the different ways they work. One day program, Art Enables, particularly caught my attention: it’s a structure that helps people develop their artistic side and produce works of art.

While the core members are at work, I’m doing a lot of things around the house. The tasks I do include deep cleaning the vans, rearranging the prayer room, sorting out the drawers, helping with the groceries… To be honest, those are not the moments I prefer in my day, but I don’t mind doing such tasks, and that’s also why I am here as a volunteer.

When they get back, I am mostly hanging out with Debora and Eileen at Ontario House – that means more crosswords and Sanford and Son, so I’m not complaining.

At 5, I go over to the apartment to eat with Andrew. I’m making dinners on Sundays and Wednesdays, with or without success (I’ll always remember the “scrambled crepes” that were a disaster… Thankfully I had time to fix some pasta!). But I guess this is part of L’Arche: mistakes and lessons, just life in short.

I get to go with everyone to different events during my stay: cook-outs, picnics, movie nights (I’ll never forget the Sound of Music and the excitement Debora felt watching it), going to the movies…Every week is different and unexpected in some way, that’s what makes L’Arche so great.

I had one worry coming to L’Arche: faith and spirituality. I am non-religious and don’t consider myself a very spiritual person, contrary to most people at L’Arche. But the thing is, being at L’Arche is in no way stifling in that sense, and it can even be eye-opening. After each dinner, people around the table pass a candle and state what they are thankful for and pray. I didn’t pray, but that doesn’t mean that I felt left out, I just found a way to incorporate what I am comfortable with in the different traditions of L’Arche.

Having gotten back to France on the 31st of July, it is now time for me to reflect on what this new L’Arche experience has brought me. As mentioned above, it wasn’t my first time volunteering with L’Arche, but each one is different. As an international French volunteer wanting to be an English teacher, being able to stay with L’Arche Greater Washington for a month has definitely helped me improve my speaking skills. But there is more to it – L’Arche is first and foremost about creating bonds and relationships. I want to thank everyone at L’Arche, the core-members, my house mates, and the many people involved who made it possible for me to feel at home. I have learned that relationships go beyond language and background, and if we are open-minded, which is definitely one of the most significant characteristics of the people at L’Arche, we can create something meaningful.

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