L'Arche is changing lives on the margins - and you can help
The unique work of L'Arche transforms lives. Faith matters finds out more, and how its Belfast community can be helped to touch even more people
WE have featured L'Arche, the international federation of faith communities founded by Jean Vanier in 1964, on these pages before.
It offers a unique model of care, in which people with and without intellectual disabilities share daily life and build community together.
They are supported and empowered to live full and meaningful lives.
This is done through homes or various programs and support networks - there are currently 152 L'Arche communities in 37 countries.
In Belfast, for example, L'Arche - French for 'ark' - has a home in the Ormeau Road area and operates 'Root Soup', a cooking and catering social enterprise, 'In Other Words', an art project, and a garden scheme called 'Green Buds'.
Gillian Mangan, project developer at L'Arche Belfast, said its vision of community was "aimed at recognising the unique value of every person that walks through our doors".
"Each one of us, regardless of our abilities, beliefs or backgrounds, has exceptional gifts that are revealed when living in community," she said.
"L'Arche is all about rejoicing in those gifts, especially the ones of people with learning disabilities, who so often are kept on the margins due to their apparent weakness."
In L'Arche, people with intellectual disabilities are known as 'core members', to further underline that they are not clients, patients or recipients of services, but friends, teachers and companions.
"The life L'Arche provides for our core members is more than just a place to sleep," explained Gillian.
Each one of us, regardless of our abilities, beliefs or backgrounds, has exceptional gifts that are revealed when living in community. L'Arche is all about rejoicing in those gifts, especially the ones of people with learning disabilities, who so often are kept on the margins due to their apparent weakness
One of the core members in Belfast is Mary - not her real name - who arrived at L'Arche six years ago.
Mary is an elective mute; when she arrived at L'Arche she did not speak to anyone for three months, and would not speak to any member of the public.
Gradually, however, she began to adjust to living in the community and came to trust the staff, volunteers and other core members she was with, to whom she began to speak.
She also became involved with L'Arche Belfast's garden and arts projects.
But it was through Root Soup, where she helps prepare and serve a weekly lunch to a local church community, that Mary's life was truly transformed.
She now speaks to everyone who comes in the door as she serves them their lunch, and has developed friendships with several regulars at the lunches.
Mary and the nine other core members she lives with are just some of the people who have had their lives changed and confidence boosted through L'Arche.
Another 60 people with learning disabilities take part in L'Arche Belfast's garden, kitchen or arts programmes each week.
Supporting this work are around 40 volunteers, who either come from abroad to spend a year living in the community, or who are from Northern Ireland.
But this sort of work also needs financial support, which is why the L'Arche team in Belfast is excited to be in the running for a grant from the Nationwide Building Society which would allow it to complete a third residential home.
This would help provide a home for life to five adults with learning disabilities, as well as the creation of a sensory room available to over 80 other adults in the wider community.
The potential funding "would make a great difference for us," said Gillian.
"It would allow us to furnish our new house and continue providing a genuine experience of community and support to more folks who would otherwise be in need of quality housing."
Scott Shively, L'Arche community leader in Belfast, said that the multi-sensory room would be a particular help for adults who have limited or no verbal communication.
"Not only will the residents of the house benefit from the positive outcomes of multi-sensory therapy, but countless others who are currently involved in our day opportunity projects, residing elsewhere or those who will be joining us for the first time because of the sensory room," he said.
Having been shortlisted, L'Arche now needs Nationwide members to vote for the Belfast project to ensure it wins the grant.
"We would call on all people eligible to vote to take action and make a life-changing difference in the lives of people with learning disabilities," said Gillian.
"What takes voters 30 seconds will impact the lives of countless individuals for years to come."
- Nationwide Building Society members can vote for the L'Arche project here. Voting closes on July 20.
- There is also more information on L'Arche at www.larcheireland.org and www.larchebelfast.org.uk, or on Facebook.