Jean Wilson, 56, is a caring, creative and lively spirited woman who is living with an intellectual disability. She is also the second core, and a founding member, of L’Arche Chicago, a housing program with two houses near Oak Park for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And, since 2000 Wilson says that she has called the L’Arche Interfaith House home.

Inside the traditional three-flat, a nontraditional family life lives on, especially at dinnertime on Tuesdays when Wilson, a “core member,” is on weekly KP duty. But, when cajoled she convivially shifts gears saying, “That’s all right, I can take a break,” and laughs.

Pulling up a chair for her long-time friend is Katie Arnold, who recently agreed to become Wilson’s L’Arche off site volunteer companion. While they chat, Philip Cordes, the “house assistant,” marches on making enough fresh salad, baked chicken (Wilson’s all-time favorite food), and ratatouille to feed this family of six (three other adult men living with intellectual disabilities), an intern plus a few drop-in dinner guests, which is common.

“Jean and I first met in 2000, I think, when we were both living together at L’Arche Chicago (Angel House),” says Arnold, a former L’Arche House Assistant who is now the executive director of Sibling Leadership Network. “[Jean and her housemates] are called core members because they are the core, the heart of the community, and that is the language of L’Arche.”

Now celebrating its 50th year, the humanitarian housing movement began when Jean Vanier, a French Canadian, bought a small house in northern France and invited two intellectually disabled men to come and live with him in L’Arche (or in English, the ark). A half century later it has become a growing international movement.

“One big thing that sets this apart from other places… is that it’s not the people without disabilities, ‘taking care of the people with disabilities,’ it’s just that everyone has gifts. Everyone has challenges, and here we are all creating our lives together in a family environment that is a mutual, and faith based, but ecumenical tradition,” says Arnold. She notes that on the second Thursday of the month introductory Community Nights are offered at L’Arche’s Angel House and Interfaith House in Chicago, at which Wilson will give guests house tours.

Still, monthly the two BFFs spend weekends at Arnold’s urban condo together, often shopping at Target, seeing movies and going on dog walks, even though Arnold doesn’t own a dog.

“Yeah, we go and pet dogs in the neighborhood,” says Wilson, who prior to being part of the L’Arche Chicago family, lived in foster care, institutional and group home settings.

“It was bad. They used to push me in the shower, and push me off the swing set,” Wilson says, as Arnold interjects that “Jean is a good advocate, and years ago she spoke on a bullhorn, to get Lincoln Developmental Center closed down, and it was shut down,” Arnold says.

Decades later, Jean Wilson says she likes living here because she wants to be on her own.

“I really like animals, especially dogs, because at Lincoln we used to have a dog that would run after cars a lot, and I would say, ‘come back, come back, Duke,'” says Wilson, who also likes baseball, especially the Cubs, riding her bike, and drawing, or painting. “I go to the Animal Care League on Sundays and I volunteer with rabbits and guinea pigs, cats and doggies. The black cat likes to climb all over me.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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