Imagine a place where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers, creating inclusive communities of faith and friendship. L’Arche is a worldwide organization dedicated to that ideal. Through the creation of homes and workplaces around the world, L’Arche aims to transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries.
Here in the near-western suburbs, L’Arche Chicago operates three homes in neighborhoods just like yours. Sarah Ruszkowski, communications and outreach coordinator says that L’Arche is the French word for “ark,” and like Noah’s ark was created to be a safe place for those who might otherwise be swept away.
L’Arche was founded in 1964 by Canadian Jean Vanier. While in France, he visited an institution for people with disabilities and was struck by the horrible conditions people were living in. After consulting with his spiritual advisors, he found a home in France and invited two of the men living at the institution to live with him, hoping he could help them. He quickly realized that the relationship was mutually beneficial with both sides giving and receiving. A friend suggested he name the community L’Arche, and Vanier quickly recognized the appropriateness of the name, which symbolized the place where people could find safety from life’s raging storms, a symbol that appears in Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu scripture as well as the mythology of early cultures.
L’Arche expanded beyond Vanier’s original house in France, and in 1968 he was invited to Canada to provide a retreat for religious and lay people. One attendee, Sister Rosemarie Donovan, Superior of Our Lady’s Missionaries, offered L’Arche a home outside of Toronto. In 1970, L’Arche spread to India, and in 1972, the first L’Arche community in the United States was founded in Pennsylvania. Today, there are over 147 L’Arche communities in 37 countries.
L’Arche’s seeds were firmly rooted in the Roman Catholic faith but as it spread to other countries, it became an interdenominational organization, and members bring their own faith and cultural traditions to the community. Today approximately, 8,000 people call L’Arche communities home.
In 1987, Vanier visited and spoke at Mundelein Seminary, and a group began to discuss creating a L’Arche community in the Chicago area. Former assistants in Vanier’s L’Arche community in Trosly, France and in other L’Arche communities in Canada worked together and in 1995 formed Friends of L’Arche as a nonprofit organization. In 1999, Vanier spoke at Holy Name Cathedral, and his work with L’Arche was the subject of a Chicago Tribune article.
Inspired by the article, a donor offered a house rent free for one year with the option to buy, and L’Arche Chicago had its first location, which was christened Angel Home. That was followed by Interfaith Home — which became Peace Home when it was relocated to Forest Park — and Friendship House. Ruszkowski said the Angel, Peace and Friendship homes now house a total of 10 core members, as residents with disabilities are known, and approximately 20 assistants.
Core members with disabilities and assistants together in one home requires that the model of care be based on shared living. Those who don’t have disabilities offer support in day-to-day tasks such as brushing teeth, cooking and cleaning.
The youngest core member in Chicago is 25, which Ruszkowski when young adults typically seek to live independently from their parents. Because L’Arche offers a home for life, different communities have residents of different age ranges, which makes each home unique.
“L’Arche communities look a little different depending on the community you’re in,” she said. The oldest community in the U.S. is 40. There the issue is helping people age well. Our members in Chicago often joined us in their 20s, which is an age at which most people are ready to create their own home.”
Most Chicago L’Arche core members have jobs or day programs they attend on weekdays from roughly 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Some core members work at Culvers or Jewel, and others attend Arts of Life, a nonprofit program that guides individuals with and without disabilities in producing and selling their art.
Assistants offer support before and after the programming, and many assistants work other jobs or attend school.
While the homes cannot serve large numbers, they offer core members a home for life. Ruszkowski pointed out that the work of L’Arche is not about providing a solution.
“We seek to be a sign as opposed to a solution,” she said. “We can’t serve everyone. We want to show people that this way of life is possible. We live in regular houses in regular neighborhoods. It’s important to who we are that we’re just people living together. Getting to know our neighbors is a beautiful thing.”
At Peace House, a glimpse into a typical week night dinner provides insight into the lifestyle of the four core members who live on a quiet Forest Park street with their four assistants.
Elisha, a long-term member, brings his Jewish faith and his love of stories to the home. He has known core member Mike since the two attended high school together. Mike proudly gives a tour of the home which includes personal bedrooms for each member and the shared kitchen, dining and living areas. Mike’s room sports bookshelves full of his favorite Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Jean, a core member for 16 years who loves animals, decorates her door with a collage of animal pictures and a stuffed dog named Lucy. Noah enjoys making jokes and teasing his housemates at the dinner table.
Assistant Christopher Colley came to L’Arche from Germany, and on a recent Tuesday night prepared an evening meal of meatloaf and vegetables. House coordinator Rachel Vander Vennen came from Canada where she first heard about L’Arche while in college.
Fellowship is an important part of L’Arche. Group dinner every night is an important time for house members to come together and share a meal. One Thursday a month, the three houses gather together for a meeting and dinner. On community nights, residents invite friends and family and members of the community are encouraged to join the gathering.
Ruszkowski emphasizes the importance of community nights, which take place the second Thursday of each month.
“Community Nights are open to everyone,” she said. “You can feel the vibrancy of the community. We want people to know L’Arche exists because it is such a gift.”