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Walking Together in Hope

Photo: L’Arche representatives Sarah Clemmer, James Schreiner, Francene Short, Fritz Schloss, and John Anton advocate for the ABLE Act.

L’Arche visits Capitol Hill to advocate for its members and others with disabilities to be able to save for the future

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. ~ Albert Camus

An hour before sunrise on February 27, Fritz Schloss and I stood in front of our bathroom mirror brushing our teeth and straightening our ties.  This would be Fritz’s third time participating in the National Down Syndrome Society‘s Buddy Walk on Capitol Hill and my first occasion joining him.  There was excitement in his eyes; he had the same expression of delight as when we go to buy fresh flowers for our home.

This year, we were advocating for the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. An article featuring self-advocate Sara Wolff explains the ABLE Act this way:

Currently, in order to qualify for government benefits like Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicaid payments, recipients typically must have no more than $2,000 in assets and earn less than approximately $700 a month. Anything more than those amounts and the benefits stop.  The ABLE Act will prevent people with disabilities from losing their benefits and allow them to open special tax advantaged savings accounts.

The ABLE Act would have a direct impact on L’Arche’s members with disabilities by enabling them to save for medical expenses, vacations, education, and various additional needs without losing their eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid services.

When Fritz and I were ready, our housemate Sarah Clemmer met us in the living room.  Having attended this event with Fritz last year, Sarah’s enthusiasm for social justice has inspired many within L’Arche to grow in awareness of issues affecting our community members.  Hazel Pulliam and Mulu Haile wished us well, and Sarah, Fritz, and I set off to begin our adventure.  We stopped by our second L’Arche home in Arlington to pick up Francene Short, who ran out to join us with joyful anticipation.

As we drove into Washington, D.C., Fritz pointed toward Hains Point and expressed the desire to go fishing in the springtime.  The sky was a beautiful blend of purple, azure, and pink as we crossed the Potomac River.  Upon arriving at the Rayburn House Office Building, we went through security and took two elevators before reaching the Gold Room.  We joined a reception hosted by the National Down Syndrome Society and enjoyed coffee and banana bread while members of Congress and additional supporters received awards.  Fritz and Sarah reconnected with Buddy Walk participants from the previous year, and we took several photos.  There was an incredible sense of unity in the room, and speakers encouraging us to “Go make a difference” concluded the reception.

Serving as advocates from Virginia, Fritz, Francene, Sarah, and I walked to the Russell Senate Office Building to meet with Elizabeth Falcone who works with Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).  In addition to the four of us from L’Arche, three families and two self-advocates were present.  Together, we emphasized our desire for the ABLE Act to be passed and for increased funding to be granted for research concerning the correlation between Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease.  While offering personal reflections, we clearly highlighted the need for legislation to be passed to allow persons with disabilities to experience full and productive lives.

Because our next meeting was not until 4:00 that afternoon, we decided to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the cafeteria.  Knowing that Francene loves trains, we also went to visit Union Station for an hour.  Throughout the day, we encountered so many kind people who offered us directions and words of encouragement.  After our extended break, we attended two meetings.  We first met with our state representative Jim Moran (D-VA).  Representative Moran remembered meeting Fritz last year, listened to our hopes and concerns, and assured us of his support. We then returned to the Russell Senate Office Building for our final session with Kristen Molloy, who works with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA).  We requested that Senator Kaine become a co-sponsor of the ABLE Act and shared how being able to save for the future could enrich the lives of so many people with intellectual disabilities.

One wonderful surprise during our day of advocacy was that John Anton, a member from L’Arche Irenicon in Massachusetts, was present as a self-advocate.  We invited him to join us for dinner and had a great ride home as John shared his experiences as intern for Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (D-WA).  Upon entering our home, our housemates greeted us with applause and hugs.  We ate dinner together and prayed by candlelight as we do every evening.  It was an amazing day.

As we continue to grow in L’Arche, we will remain hopeful that more and more people will come to recognize the beauty and gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities revealed through our mutually transforming relationships. Together we are helping to build a society where everyone has enough and each person has a place of honor.

-James Schreiner is a member of L’Arche Highland House in Arlington. Prior to coming to L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C., James lived in L’Arche Clinton (Iowa). Help pass the ABLE Act by calling your State Senators and Representative and asking for their support.

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