During the day, Tim commutes to Arts of Life, where he hones his skills as a painter of abstract art. In the evening, he returns to the Forest Park house he shares with five friends and a dog named Allie. He and his roommates divide household responsibilities from cooking group dinners to cleaning the bathrooms. They like to go out to dinner to T.G.I. Fridays, drink coffee and watch softball games in the park.
It’s a home like any other, but in some ways it is unique. Tim and his roommates live in Friendship House, a house owned and operated by not-for-profit L’Arche, an international federation of adults with and without intellectual disabilities sharing life in intentional communities.
The first L’Arche home was founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier, a philosopher, writer, and a religious leader in France. Appalled at the denigrating state of institutions that housed individuals with disabilities and mental illness, Vanier invited two men with disabilities to share his home. His outreach grew into a movement spanning 154 communities in 38 countries with residents speaking more than 20 languages.
L’Arche USA consists of 18 L’Arche communities, and L’Arche Chicago opened as the 14th community in the United States in 2000. Jeremy Chia, development director for L’Arche Chicago, says the first L’Arche home in the near west suburb/West Side area opened in Austin. With the addition of two homes in Forest Park, the L’Arche in the near western suburbs is now home to 11 core members and their resident assistants.
Chia says that L’Arche homes are homes for life for their core members and that the entire system is built upon Vanier’s tenets. “At the heart of our service is the fundamental belief that each person is gifted with unique gifts and talents to benefit the world. Our homes value the mutual aspect of relationships. Both parties give and receive.”
Core members, as the adults with intellectual disabilities are known, come from other group homes or from living with family or guardians. Once they find a home in L’Arche they can stay there for the remainder of their lives. Live-in assistants commit to at least one year of living in the house and assisting in day-to-day management and assistance.
Tim and his assistant Ryan Weseloh live in Friendship House. Weseloh has been with L’Arche since 2017. He worked with adults with developmental disabilities while a student at Concordia College and says L’Arche gives him a sense of purpose while also helping him learn and grow. He says he and the other residents are a part of the community. “We walk the neighbor’s dog, and they come over for dinner sometimes.”
Chia notes, “It’s a household that’s not that different from typical household. Everyone coordinates schedules and chores. Meals are cooked and shared. Some core members work and some go to day programs. Assistants and core members enjoy leisure time and budget for leisure activities like movies and bowling.”
Oak Park resident Keri Lucas has been volunteering with L’Arche for the past year. The mother of two young children says she first was connected with L’Arche through her pastor. “I wanted to get involved with the community. We were putting down roots here and wanted to give back. My oldest daughter has developmental disabilities. Our pastor knows this issue touches our family, so he told me about L’Arche. As a parent of a child with developmental disabilities, you’re always thinking about the future. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of what the community looks like for an adult with developmental disabilities.”
Lucas volunteers twice a month for what is called shared time: she spends time with core member Elbert when he is home. She says, “The term ‘shared time’ really captures the essence of my volunteer experience. Our only agenda is to spend time together.”
Often accompanied by her young son, Lucas and Elbert hang out in the house or go on outings in the community. She says they have developed a friendship. “We started as strangers, but through the process of sharing time, we became friends. He takes a lot of delight in my kids. For me, it’s a really positive experience to have an adult who is not a family member value my kids.”
For Lucas, L’Arche allows her to give as well as receive and has helped her build a deeper community for herself and her family. “Some of the terms we use like community and human dignity can be very abstract, but L’Arche gives them concrete meaning.”