WASHINGTON — Walking through Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, it’s easy to miss the house on Ontario Road or the one on Euclid Street.
Outside, they look like ordinary brownstones. Inside, the TV plays. Photographs of family members top the mantel, and colorful, hand-painted canvases adorn the walls. A “March Madness”-style board shows saints being voted through the “brackets” for a championship win.
But this building doesn’t house a family or a group of budget-bound Millennials.
It’s a home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, one of four houses belonging to L’Arche in D.C. (LArche-gwdc.org).
The disabled residents or “core people” live side-by-side with assistants who help them meet their daily needs — everything from assistance in the bathroom and taking medications to tying shoes.
In turn, the core people help the assistants grow in patience, understanding and faith.
Residents apply through the D.C. or Arlington, Va., government (L’Arche has a link online). Entry presupposes that the disabled person has already been identified as such for legal purposes, etc. Since this is essentially a life choice, opportunities for new core people to enter are fairly rare, however.
For their part, assistants can apply to any of the 18 communities through L’Arche USA. Assistants come from a variety of backgrounds, academic degrees and stages of life, according to Bethany Keener, communications manager. L’Arche offers training specific to the community and home the assistants will be supporting, with oversight from government agencies that oversee each jurisdiction.
If such a concept sounds strange today, 50 years ago it was unheard of.
L’Arche International originated in 1964, when Jean Vanier — formerly of the Royal Canadian Navy, with a Ph.D. from the Institut Catholique de Paris and a respectable academic position — invited two disabled men, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave their institutions for an ordinary house in Trosly-Breuil, France.
The D.C. branch of L’Arche, founded 19 years later, began with Ontario house and expanded in 1988 with Euclid house. Additional houses were added in Arlington, Va., in 2006 and 2010, providing space for a total of 16 core people.
As L’Arche’s semi-serendipitous origins suggest, the organization’s members are always happy to draw more people into their circle.
The D.C. houses encourage the curious to take a tour, come for dinner or visit during prayer night.
D.C. residents will have the opportunity to experience L’Arche on a larger scale, when 300 members from L’Arche USA’s 18 communities meet to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. Two of the anniversary events — a celebration at American University’s Friedheim Quad and an interfaith prayer service at the National Presbyterian Church — are open to the public.
Home Sweet Home
Like all L’Arche communities, D.C. L’Arche operates under standard governmental regulations, fulfilling the basic needs of its core people in licensed group homes.
But the atmosphere is radically un-institutional.
Many of the assistants live in house, and they all come home for dinner each night. Sarah Ruszkowski, the “home life leader” for Ontario house, explained, “We don’t want the culture to be clock in, clock out.”
For the assistants, L’Arche is not so much a profession as a lifestyle choice.
For the core people, L’Arche means being treated as valuable human beings with individual goals, preferences and gifts. Making those gifts known is a significant aspect of L’Arche’s mission, especially for those core people who may not be used to hearing that they are valued.
When it comes to daily life, Ruszkowski describes the core people as sources of inspiration and guidance. She facilitates relationships among the other assistants and the core people — in fact, her role puts her in something of the position of a house parent or coach.
But the lives of the core people involve a large degree of personal choice; and Ruszkowski herself takes many cues from them, particularly from Michael Schaff, a core person whose 31-year residence makes him the real expert on community living.
The core people’s involvement in decision-making extends from the mundane (what to cook, what museums to visit and movies to see) to the big picture.
Government-mandated annual meetings with each disabled adult are preceded by L’Arche “map meetings,” where the core person sets goals for the year — volunteering at church, buying a camera, redecorating a bedroom or even taking a trip to London. Other core people and assistants bring suggestions that help shape the goals and strategize about how to accomplish them.
At her house, Ruszkowski and her fellow assistants go through the map process too, enjoying the same benefits of friendly input that the core people receive.
This degree of subsidiarity and mutual support is evident in L’Arche residents’ religious practices.
In the D.C. houses, there are residents who are Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and nondenominational Christians. The assistants, whatever their religion, make sure that the core people are able to practice their religion to the extent possible.
Ruszkowski, who has degrees in theology and psychology, describes the faith of her core people as direct, but far from simple.
“People assume that there is only a certain depth at which someone with disabilities can know and love God. That isn’t true. The faith life is led by our core people.”
This leading in faith is exemplified by Johnny Schofield.
Originally from Cuba, Schofield speaks Spanish almost exclusively and is unable to walk without support. But none of this dampens his passion for helping the homeless. His usual contribution method, besides volunteering at church, involves collecting pennies — hundreds of pennies.
During the annual Catholic Charities drive this Lent, that meant bringing five Rice Bowls home and returning them, full of pennies, a few days later.
Ruszkowski recalls that “the person at church was very confused, because nobody brings their rice bowls back the very second weekend of Lent.”
Johnny’s lived connection between faith and charitable works is engrained in L’Arche history: Vanier’s Catholic faith was the impetus for his decision to form the first community in France.
L’Arche’s charter underlines its faith-based aspects, describing L’Arche communities as places “guided by God and by their weakest members, through whom God’s presence is revealed.”
Vanier himself, age 86, still lives in the original L’Arche house in Trosly-Breuil — when he’s not traveling the globe to one of L’Arche’s 147 communities in 35 different countries.
His accomplishments have been most recently recognized by the John Templeton Foundation, which this month awards Vanier its annual Templeton Prize, an honor previously bestowed on Blessed Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Vanier’s work continues to spread as more individuals discover L’Arche.
Katherine Quan, the service-ministry chair at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, has taken her young-adult group to L’Arche homes multiple times.
She says the volunteers dubbed their first L’Arche trip “the best service project we had ever done — ever. I think it’s because there’s this immediate connection, because everyone’s valued: Your service there meant something.”
Humor and Friendship
When Heather Sullivan volunteered with the St. Peter’s group, she found herself next to a core person, Moe, who passed up the planned activity (decorating Easter eggs) in order to clip coupons.
Sullivan, eager to contribute, found that Moe “was just fine clipping all of his coupons by himself. He had a system, it was working for him, and any help on my part was ‘messing him up.’”
Initially puzzled by Moe’s decision to ignore the coupon barcodes, Sullivan eventually realized that the point of the exercise wasn’t saving money, but “just to be really present in what you were doing — not to be perfect about it, just to clip the best way that you can. And as someone with perfectionist tendencies, it was really refreshing to consider that the ‘right’ way isn’t always the ‘best’ way.”
Sometimes, of course, the “right” way becomes indispensable, and the assistants step in.
Robert Vega, the leader of the St. Peter’s young-adult group, says that, in L’Arche, “the need for the assistants to be guides, monitors … does come through.”
But, oftentimes, the idiosyncrasies of the core people are simply humorous.
Vega recalled his first experience of L’Arche, when the usual mealtime ritual was modified at the suggestion of one core resident, who wanted everyone to wish each other “Merry Christmas” — even though it was October, and most of the diners were sharing their plans for Halloween.
Moments of humor, faith and personal interaction attract volunteers to L’Arche. The other attraction is seeing the care that the core people receive.
Vega described the assistants’ care as “not only more individualized, but also more deeply personal and relationship-based than I can imagine any other caretaking facility doing.”
Sullivan is “pretty sure the assistants are all angels in fantastic disguise.”
Quan recalled one volunteer, an occupational therapist, who “was actually crying because she has never seen a place where they take care of the residents so well.” Quan herself is “amazed” by the assistants’ attitude towards their core people.
“It’s not pitying — they’re with them; they love them. They’re just friends.”
“Friends” is a word Sarah Ruszkowski would second.
But she admitted that, despite careful planning, life in L’Arche isn’t idyllic.
“You can’t go away when things are hard, and you can’t be ‘on’ all the time just because it’s your house.”
At the end of the day, though, these are Ruszkowski’s friends, and L’Arche D.C. is her home. Although some assistants stay for a year or two and then go on to other careers or graduate school, others stay for much longer periods. Ruszkowski is one of those.
A native of Chicago, she has no plans to head back to the Midwest.
“As far as I can see it right now, I see my future here,” she said, adding, with a laugh, “They got me.”
Sophia Mason Feingold writes from Washington.