If you visited the L’Arche Atlanta house around noon on a typical weekday, before the COVID-19 pandemic, you might find one house assistant at home, quietly preparing that evening’s dinner. Now, with social distancing in place, if you visited the L’Arche Atlanta house at noon, the dining room is filled with Core Members (adults with disabilities who live in the L’Arche house) and house assistants eating lunch together. Like many of their Decatur neighbors, L’Arche residents are using this time of sheltering-in-place as an opportunity to strengthen their relationships with each other.
L’Arche (it rhymes with “marsh”) is French for “the Ark,” a place of safety and refuge. L’Arche Atlanta is part of an international federation of 154 communities, 17 of which are in the U.S. The L’Arche Atlanta home opened in Oakhurst in 2012, and a second home is expected to open in Decatur next year. In L’Arche homes adults with and without disabilities live together in community. No one is viewed as a client, patient, or recipient of services; Core Members and house assistants share their lives with each other as a family.
While social isolation might feel like a strange new reality, unfortunately it is nothing new for many people with disabilities. Our society often isolates people with disabilities limiting their opportunity to offer their gifts and friendship. Because L’Arche seeks to overcome social isolation for people with disabilities, the current stay-at-home reality presents a particular challenge. Household members miss getting out into the broader community. Terry misses his girlfriend who he used to see everyday at his day program. John misses going to Kavarna for coffee with friends. Corbin misses bagpipe practice. Patrick misses working as a greeter for the Gwinnett Stripers. Everyone misses the friends and neighbors whom L’Arche regularly invites to the house for dinner.
L’Arche assistants have responded quickly and creatively to the challenge of overcoming isolation during the pandemic. The house team has re-scheduled and shifted routines to have more assistants at home for more hours of the day. Core Members have changed how they engage with each other and with the broader community: lots of art projects, FaceTime calls with friends and family, attending church online, reconnecting with old friends, BINGO nights, and board games. Birthday celebrations, an important part of community life, now involve guests joining via Zoom. The L’Arche house has received countless letters, calls, and gifts from friends. They’ve also started weekly Zoom meet-ups where an extended network of people with disabilities can join for trivia, art, dance, and yoga.
How does the mutuality of friendship between Core Members and house assistants play out during a pandemic? “We are learning from each other and we are supporting each other,” says Becca, L’Arche Atlanta’s Home Life Leader. “We have all experienced our ups and downs during this time. The joy of community is that we support each other—when I’m down, Terry might make me smile, and visa versa. This has built resilience in our community. We are all in this together.”
And be sure to check our L’Arche Life page for more opportunities to get involved and for more stories to get inspired by.