L’Arche: Movement creates community of love

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, May 1, 2016

L’Arche: Movement creates community of love

Kate Schulte, House Coordinator for the L'Arche Friendship House in Forest Park, prepares dinner with Noah Cichon on April 21. L'Arche communities provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers, create inclusive communities of faith and friendship and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Mike Marino sets the table for dinner at the L'Arche Friendship House in Forest Park on April 21. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Each month, members of the L’Arche community in Chicago gather at one of the three L’Arche homes with supporters, family members and friends. People stop and remove their shoes before entering Friendship House in Forest Park. Old friends hug and greet one another; newcomers are warmly welcomed.

The group includes L’Arche core members, adults with developmental disabilities who make their home at L’Arche (French for “The Ark”), the assistants who help them keep the houses running, board members and friends and neighbors.

Everyone is encouraged to share, and everyone is encouraged to listen. They talk about the community, maybe sing or pray or do an activity, then share refreshments and socialize. The goal is to help all members of the community love and accept that they are loved.

“Many people are filled with fear, fear of people, fear of losing,” said Luca Badetti, the community life director. “L’Arche is a place of revelation, revealing to people that they are loved, that they are precious as they are.”

L’Arche is considered a movement. It was founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier, a Catholic.

“It’s a movement of people who want to share what we have in common and who want to share each other’s gifts,” said Mic Altena, executive director of L’Arche Chicago.

Community members live in support of one another, sharing their gifts and challenges and fostering a home life of unity, mutual respect and participation by all members, he said.

The assistants provide direct care support and skill-building for core members, such as: seeing to personal care needs, money management, managing medical care and appointments, making family and work connections, and assisting with household chores, laundry, medications, meal preparation and transportation.

“We come out of a Catholic tradition, but Jean [Vanier] has continued to challenge us to move beyond simple labels and see our shared humanity,” Altena said. Many of its supporters are Catholic, but L’Arche includes many non-Catholics as well.

“We’re very distinctly a faith community where we share each other’s journeys and stories,” Altena said, noting that the Chicago community includes people who are Catholic, Jewish and Baptist, among other faith traditions. “We are unified around a common spirituality.”

Among the group are Ron Cichon and his son, Noah, a core member who lives at Friendship House. Noah has lived at L’Arche for about three years, occupying a first-floor bedroom that is accessible with his walker. It’s decorated with posters of planets and a large mobile of the solar system.

Cichon said he and his wife met Jean Vanier when he was visiting Chicago years ago, and were grateful when the L’Arche community started here, opening its first house in 2000, when they determined it would be a good fit for Noah.

Making a plan and finding a home for adult children with disabilities is a challenge, Cichon said.

“The older he gets, the harder that transition gets,” he said.

One of the things that he likes most about L’Arche is its emphasis on building connections.

“L’Arche Chicago extends an invitation to come and see the extraordinary beauty of shared life between people with and without intellectual disabilities in communities of faith,” said Altena.

The night Cichon is there, core members are banding together to win support for their idea of adopting a dog to join their community and making a list of what a dog will need.

The L’Arche Chicago community includes 10 core members in three houses, with nine live-in assistants and five live-out assistants. Most of the community’s funding — about 80 percent — comes from the state of Illinois’ Medicaid waiver program, which Altena describes as “one-size-fitsall funding for people with developmental disabilities.”

L’Arche also relies on private fundraising, mostly gifts from individual donors, to provide the resources and lifestyle it wants for its members.

“We really want to do more than just a bare-bones place,” he said.

L’Arche is included in a consent decree that required Illinois to keep up with payments to organizations that provide care to people with intellectual disabilities, and after a couple of months of confusion when the state failed to have a budget approved last summer, the payments have come in consistently and on time, Altena said.

Still, uncertainty looms, he said. The organizations have been paid at the same rate they were in the 2015 fiscal year, when the state had more revenue thanks to an income tax surcharge that was allowed to expire. When a 2016 spending bill is eventually passed, will it cut the reimbursement rate? If it does, will those cuts be retroactive?

Altena said he doesn’t have any answers.

“We’re all holding our breaths about what’s going to happen,” he said.

Altena has served at L’Arche Chicago for about three years after working as a chaplain at Rush University Medical Center. He was a live-in assistant at L’Arche Boston from 2005 to 2009.

“When I was a live-in assistant in the L’Arche house, nobody cared what degree I had, how much money I had, how many big words I could use,” Altena said. “What people cared about was if I was invested in my relationship with them. I was more myself there than any place I had been. I was more authentic in that space.”

A central part of L’Arche living is sharing meals. That means the core members and assistants work together to prepare the food, eat together and clean up together as well.

“You’re coming together as a family,” Altena said. “You’re sharing food, but you’re also sharing your life, talking about your day, telling your stories.”

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  • disabilities
  • people with disabilties
  • larche community

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