By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 8, 2012
Terry Hochschild sliced carrots to add to the green salad. Sara Ellet snapped spaghetti in half before dumping the pasta in the boiling water.
It’s dinnertime at the L’Arche community, where the round wooden table is set with a centerpiece of flowers and where the meal is served family style.
“We’re six people who are living together and care about one another,” Ellet said, as the tomato sauce on the stove bubbles. Terry smiles and laughs often, as if he’s in on a joke. His speech is hard to understand. He is one of three “core members” of the community, people with intellectual disabilities.
“There are things I can learn from Terry and things Terry can learn from me,” said Ellet.
L’Arche Atlanta is the first home in Georgia for the international organization. Its mission is to welcome people with disabilities in to a community of friendship and growth.
“L’Arche serves as a hope for what the human family can look like,” said Curt Armstrong, the local community leader and executive director. “Our human family is completed when everyone is included.”
“I believe it is something close to the heart of God,” said Armstrong, who lived in a similar community in France for a dozen years.
The Victorian home is in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. It has a sweeping front porch. Inside the home, the front parlor has a flat screen TV, along with a piano, and an aquarium with fish the community voted to name Marvin, Fireworks and Aloysius. Sunlight streams through big windows overlooking gardens and lawns. Books fill bookcases, from “The Heart of Christianity” and “The Foundation of Buddhism” to “The Dignity of Difference” and “Bread for the Journey.”
Sigrid Swenson watched her daughter Lara direct her motorized wheelchair through the front door.
A group of friends and family, in the middle of August, carried in the special bed she sleeps in for her cerebral palsy and her desk, where she works stuffing envelops and other office tasks.
“It’s going to give Lara an entirely new way of being an adult. She’s going to be one of six responsible adults living here. Everybody’s going to be helping everybody,” said Swenson.
“This is going to give her an opportunity to grow exponentially,” she said.
The application process took a couple of months to complete. Organizers want to make sure it is a good fit, that Lara would accept the community, just as the community had to learn about her.
“It was pretty hard to wait,” said Lara, who moved from a group home with two men with disabilities. “I was really kind of nervous. Now, it feels like my office,” she said, as people finished putting her room together. “I feel, like, so absolutely comfortable,” she said.
John Hudson, who is 30, decorated his room with an oversized cardboard cutout of professional wrestling superstar John Cena. He also is a Falcons football fan.
For John, who has medical issues with his eyes, along with developmental disabilities, the L’Arche home is a place of possibilities: where he cooks dinner, contributes his opinion at house meetings, and votes on the names of fish. He also places wagers as the community plays pool. “We’re going to go out and have some fun. The loser has to pay for dessert,” he said.
L’Arche believes its inclusive communities can serve as a beacon, a signal pointing toward what the world can become, as the gifts of people with developmental disabilities are shared. People with disabilities are its core members; the assistants are the community members without disabilities.
For Jessica Bridges, 28, the community would not exist without the three core members.
“They are the heart of our community. Without our core members, we would not have the same shape of community; they are the glue that holds us together,” she said.
The group is “living life together, living in a house together, sharing daily tasks,” said Bridges, who is a provisional deacon of the United Methodist Church.
L’Arche (which means ark in French) began in 1964 when its founder, Jean Vanier, invited two men from an institution to share a home with him. Today, there are 18 L’Arche homes in the United States and nearly 140 communities in 37 other countries.
Vanier’s work was recognized by the Church when Vanier received the 1997 Paul VI International Prize for his lay ministry. Blessed John Paul II said the organization is “a dynamic and providential sign of the civilization of love.”
Vanier came to Atlanta in 2003 to give a retreat that helped kindle the local enthusiasm.
Supporters worked for years to open in Atlanta this type of community. It’s helped by the Friends of L’Arche, which includes parishioners from St. Thomas More Church, Decatur; Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta; the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, among many others. There are some 1,800 on its mailing list.
Laura Wells and a dozen others have been involved with the Atlanta effort since the beginning.
Wells lived in a L’Arche home in Scotland in 1993 after college. L’Arche teaches that “everybody has gifts, that we are all different and we all have strengths and weakness,” said Wells, a licensed clinical social worker and co-president of the board of directors.
“It makes me want to cry with happiness. It is so amazing to have the first L’Arche home in the region. It’s pretty incredible. It was such a dream for so long,” she said.
At the dining room table, dinner is over. The empty plates are taken into the kitchen. It’s prayer time, when the group shares aloud the day’s highlights or simply the things that are in the members’ hearts. Ellet lights a candle as the community listens to a reading from the Book of Psalms.
“Oh, my beloved, be gracious unto me, welcome me back into new life, hear my prayer,” Ellet reads.