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On the Basis of Equality

Shep Abell is many things – a lawyer, a former adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, board member of the Abell Foundation, fundraiser, Order of Malta Member and at L’Arche, a sous chef.

Shep comes by 6th Street House in Arlington once a month to help cook dinner and spend time with core members (adults with intellectual disabilities). He has been a friend of L’Arche GWDC for over two decades.

He first heard of L’Arche through the books of Jean Vanier. Shep’s sister Patricia has a disability and that “opened the door” for him to Vanier’s messages, such as the need for vulnerability. From reading about L’Arche, Shep then heard of a L’Arche open house in our first home on Ontario Road. This was in the mid-1990s and Shep made his way to Ontario where he “made the mistake of sitting next to [former executive director] John Cook and the rest is history.”

Shep started coming to dinner and other L’Arche events and then began volunteering as a fundraiser, helping the community raise money for the expansion of the Ontario house and for establishing a home in northern Virginia. Raising that large amount of money was hard but also a lot of fun and educational, he said.

Once he retired, he “decided I wanted to take a more active role, and this is a first step in the water.” He sees cooking at a L’Arche home as a way to stay active and build a relationship with some of the members of the community.

As a member of the Order of Malta, Shep has also helped coordinate gifts and volunteers to cook meals for L’Arche, and the Order has taken a L’Arche member for five of the last six years on their Lourdes pilgrimage.

Shep (far right) with core family member Charles Clark (seated) at Lourdes.

Shep recalled memories from his many years of being part of the L’Arche community: spending time with core member Eileen Schofield who would take him out to lunch and ask him for a $50 donation to L’Arche; going to a birthday party at L’Arche and enjoying the custom of naming a wonderful quality of the person being celebrated; the fun conversations with core family member Charles. “I like the community,” he said simply.

I agreed, and interjected some of my own love for L’Arche – how at L’Arche no one judges your career or educational pedigree, they just want your presence. “I think that’s true,” said Shep. “I guess I’ve just taken that for granted from L’Arche for so long that it didn’t strike me. The longer you’re associated with L’Arche the more you imbibe that as part of your being and your thinking and you don’t notice it anymore.”

Shep pointed out how for people with intellectual disabilities “the goal posts have definitely moved” for quality of life and inclusivity. For his own sister Patricia, Shep’s parents were told she might live until 40. Patricia is now 79 and “healthier than any of us.”

There is a movement to have people with intellectual disabilities out in the community. “In a lot of ways,” said Shep, “there have been changes and L’Arche has led the way in many of those.”

And what he would say to people considering visiting or volunteering at L’Arche? He replied “definitely come and see.” Shep explained that when people volunteer they don’t fully see the way in which L’Arche operates in equality, such as taking everyone’s votes into account, but they do see how people defer to core members when listening to them, and core members’ thoughts, prayers, or reflections are treated with equal, if not greater, value.

I asked Shep how he would describe L’Arche. He responded that L’Arche takes people with intellectual disabilities “as what they really are, human beings with strengths, relationships, gifts, and treats them on the basis of equality and it’s a very beautiful thing.”

Blog written by Mary Ellen Dingley, Communications and Outreach Coordinator 

Featured photo: Shep with former L’Arche assistant Toni (left) and core member Fritz at Lourdes. 



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