L’Arche International Federation: Communities for the Mentally Handicapped
There is a facet of the intentional communities movement that serves people with mental or physical disabilities. Two international networks of such communities are the Camphill communities and the L’Arche International Federation. There are also communities for the disabled that are not part of a specific network, such as Innisfree community in Virginia. (See resources on the following page.) This article focuses on one of the L’Arche communities, in Mobile, Alabama. L’Arche is French for ‘the Ark,’ meaning a place of refuge. Marty O’Malley, the executive director of L’Arche Mobile, spoke with copy editor Lisa Cigliana about his community.
L’Arche is a close-knit christian community in which people with mental handicaps live with nonhandicapped people in a family-like environment. We are part of the L’Arche International Federation, in which there are 110 communities in 27 countries.
We see our mission as: (1) creating a home where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured; (2) revealing the unique values and vocation of each person; and (3) changing society by choosing to live in community as a sign of hope and love.
In Mobile, we’ve welcomed 19 people with handicaps, and most have multiple handicaps. For example, some have mental retardation and seizure disorders, or they might be blind and can’t walk. In addition, 17 have come from state institutions and there is little or no family contact, so we quite literally become family. We try to live like brothers and sisters.
Nonhandicapped people (assistants) are an integral part of the team at L’Arche. They can be more-or-less permanent residents, and are often people who have had some sort of career and want a lifestyle change. We’ve had a chemist, a lawyer, a teacher, and nurses. Here in Mobile, 10 of us have been here over five years. Another group of people that we attract are those who stay from one to three years, and they are usually recent college graduates who want to live in our community before getting into a career. Finally, we attract people who are either in school or haven’t yet started school. They want to stay a year or less, similar to an internship or a summer program.
In terms of administration, our board of directors takes care of the policies and procedures. The community council is responsible for the quality of life of the community. Donations make up about a third of our operating expenses. Not all L’Arche communities are that way; some are government-funded.
L’Arche Mobile is a part of the L’Arche International Federation. On an international level, the federation addresses issues such as our spirituality, retaining assistants long term, looking at issues that affect L’Arche globally as well as health insurance and recruitment. Within the United States, we are linked to communities in Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City, Kansas; and Clinton, Iowa. These communities sponsor retreats for people with handicaps and also offer orientations in the L’Arche philosophy to assistants.
For those interested in learning more about L’Arche, our founder, Jean Vanier, has written numerous books; his most sought-after title, which we view almost as a ‘bible’ of living in community, is Community and Growth. The late author Fr. Henri Nouwen lived in a L’Arche community for several years, and his book The Road to Daybreak tells of his experiences.
- L’Arche Mobile, 151 South Ann St, Mobile AL 36604, USA. Email: [email protected] http://www2.acan.net/~larchmob/
- L’Arche Canada http://www.larchecanada.org/
- Camphill Association of North America, 224 Nantmeal Rd, Glenmoore PA 19343, USA. Tel: 610-469-6162. Email: [email protected] http://www.camphillassociation.org/
- Camphill Communities, Britain and Ireland, http://www.camphill.org.uk/
- Innisfree Village, 5505 Walnut Level Rd, Crozet VA 22932, USA. Tel: 804-823-5400. Email: [email protected] http://monticello.avenue.gen.va.us/innisfree/
- Vanier, Jean. Community and Growth. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Daybreak Publications. Email [email protected]
Marty O’Malley has been involved in L’Arche since 1976, serving as executive director of L’Arche Mobile since 1985. Prior to coming to L’Arche, he worked in the criminal justice to divert people with handicaps—particularly with mental illness—away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment programs. Lisa Cigliana lived in the Bright Morning Star community in Seattle, Washington in the mid-1990s. She is currently studying video production and filmmaking.