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Molly CahillDecember 18, 2020
Fritz and Lauren of L'Arche GWDC. Photo courtesy of Lauren Palmer.

Last February, the worldwide federation L’Arche released an internal report that revealed decades of sexual misconduct committed by its founder Jean Vanier, who died in 2019. Mr. Vanier had been described as a living saint, and his work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities had inspired an international following and the establishment of over 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries.

The members of those communities around the world were devastated by the news of Mr. Vanier’s misconduct. They anticipated that overcoming the fallout from those revelations would be their most difficult challenge for some time to come. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic became another undeniable reality to face.

Coronavirus health restrictions created profound obstacles for the communal relationships and interplay of everyday life at L’Arche communities. “It’s been rough,” said Eileen Schofield, a “core member” at Ontario House, one of the four homes of L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. “I can’t go see my friends and all that.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms. Schofield filled her days with three different jobs: She made and sold art through an organization called Art Enables, worked at a local cafe and community space called The Potter’s House, and held the title of “friendship builder” in L’Arche G.W.D.C.’s offices. In all three positions, she made friends and did work she was proud to do. Since March, she and her housemates have seen their once-full schedules change dramatically.

L’Arche G.W.D.C. is part of the international federation of L’Arche communities, “a community of people with and without intellectual disabilities sharing life together.” Residents with intellectual disabilities, called “core members” at L’Arche, share meals, activities and experiences with “assistants,” community members without intellectual disabilities. Community members say that, different from a traditional group home or care facility for adults with disabilities, L’Arche homes are families.

“We provide care for people with intellectual disabilities, yes, but those people with intellectual disabilities also provide care for me. Their unique gifts sustain me.”

Family life at L’Arche is close and personal. Before the pandemic, this meant holding hands for prayer, eating dinner around the table every night, frequent visits from family and friends. With new restrictions, though, they have had to adapt to a life that now includes six feet of distance between community members (except when core members require direct support from assistants), personal protective equipment even in the home and the cancellation of day programs and work.

Laura Heiman, the home life leader at Ontario House, is an assistant in the community and also coordinates visits with people who want to become more involved with L’Arche. That used to involve a lot of planning for dinners with guests. In the time of coronavirus, visitors no longer come into the homes and housemates had to get creative to connect with people outside the community.

Ms. Heiman admitted that the necessary safety precautions have made life at Ontario House different. “I recently saw one of my coworkers pull their mask down to take a drink of coffee, and they cracked a joke, and I saw them smile for the first time in a long time,” she said.

She and her fellow assistants wear surgical masks and eye protection when around core members; she has been reflecting on “how challenging it can be to communicate when half of your face is obstructed by P.P.E. It makes you realize everything that goes into our normal modes of communication.”

While safety measures are a burden, L’Arche G.W.D.C. has had success in keeping community members healthy.

“The spirituality is lived out as opposed to being doctrinal. When individuals may be ill, they can reach for those who are in community with them as part of the healing process.”

Dr. Kim Bullock, an associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, says that some of the practices L’Arche established long before the pandemic have benefited the health of its community. Dr. Bullock and her graduate teaching assistant, John DiBello, remarked that while an annual individualized service plan usually helps individuals with disabilities communicate with their health care providers on matters related to their medical care, L’Arche implements a life-mapping practice that goes beyond medical needs alone. Core members have the opportunity, with help from the people who love and care for them most, to set yearly goals that tend to all parts of their wellbeing.

For example, Ms. Schofield wanted to work on improving her cooking skills—becoming what she called “a real chef,” complete with hat and apron. Another core member, Bruce Weaver, loves fire trucks and set a goal to visit a museum to learn more about them. Many core members commit to growing particular relationships with friends and family.

Dr. Bullock also teaches medical students in a community-based learning course where they encounter individuals with disabilities through L’Arche and other organizations. In the new virtual environment, she says the course’s focus has been on advocacy—on the ways that individuals with disabilities advocate effectively for their own health needs and on the ways that medical students can engage in advocating for their patients in their future careers as physicians.

“If you’re in an environment [like L’Arche] that is more interdependent and community-oriented, where you’re sitting at the table and eating dinner together, and you have an opportunity to talk about yourself and how you feel, it’s a lot easier for you to be able to express...your medical needs than it is when everything is very segmented and siloed. When everything is so integrated, you don’t feel as if your health is segregated from the rest of your life,” Dr. Bullock said.

Mr. DiBello added, “Then, when you come to the middle of this March and everyone’s going crazy about this new virus, you already feel comfortable and safe talking about a health need or any other need.”

Dr. Bullock has been impressed with the way L’Arche connects spirituality with health. “The spirituality is lived out as opposed to being doctrinal,” she said. “When individuals may be ill, they can reach for those who are in community with them as part of the healing process.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who are excluded from important conversations. L’Arche’s desire is to be a voice for change in that.”

Luke Smith serves as community leader and executive director of L’Arche G.W.D.C. In the pandemic, he has experienced the continuation of a pattern he already knew well: the exclusion of perspectives of those with intellectual disabilities, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“There are 76,000 communities for people, both adults and children, with intellectual disabilities in the U.S., so that means there are hundreds of thousands of people who are excluded from important conversations,” Mr. Smith said. “Part of L’Arche’s desire is to be a voice for change in that.”

Mr. Smith said that L’Arche’s charter is currently being rewritten, and their organization is working to change materials they once shared with visitors that included many of Mr. Vanier’s writings. Mr. Smith wanted core members to understand the truth of the scandal involving their founder, especially since some of them had met Mr. Vanier during his trips to Washington. “We had to say that Jean had lied, he had betrayed the trust of others, and he hurt people,” he explained. Among the core members’ responses he shared were sentiments like, “That shouldn’t have happened,” “I feel betrayed,” and “I don’t think I could trust him again.”

In the face of scandal and grief, Mr. Smith continues to be committed to L’Arche’s mission, which he believes is more central than the figure of Jean Vanier himself. “I go back to our identity statement, that we are people with and without intellectual disabilities. We’re not a Canadian guy living in France. We are people and we share life.”

Eva-Elizabeth Chisholm, L’Arche G.W.D.C.’s human services leader, shared an experience she had visiting a virtual class where she and a core member spoke about the community. At the session, someone asked about the allegations against Mr. Vanier.

Ms. Chisholm said the core member responded by saying, “What he did was wrong, and he broke our trust. But I’m not going to stop living L’Arche.”

Independent of this scandal, the careful work the community has done to keep its members safe from Covid-19 is a testament to its mission. Mr. Smith believes this is because the community’s charism of care is about mutuality: “We provide care for people with intellectual disabilities, yes, but those people with intellectual disabilities also provide care for me. Their unique gifts sustain me.”

Ms. Chisholm echoed Mr. Smith’s faith in the community’s unique kind of care. “I want people to know that making decisions with love, making decisions for others doesn’t hurt ourselves. It’s the best thing we can do.”

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