Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

L’Arche Spokane offers community, relationship

by Diamynd Tucker and Jami LeBrun, Inland Register

(From the April 28, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Members of the Spokane L’Arche community: seated, from left, are Sean Doneen, Richard Deshon, and Michelle Cobb. Standing: Cathy Klaus, Executive Director. (IR photo)

When asked how he feels about being part of the L’Arche Spokane community, 44-year-old Sean Doneen does not need to use words. For him, a wide grin and two thumbs up suffice.

L’Arche Spokane, Inc. is one of 130 communities in 29 countries that make up the International Federation of L’Arche that began in France in 1964. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating communities that welcome people with developmental disabilities. “L’Arche” is French for “The Ark.”

Spokane’s L’Arche community was founded in 1976 by Holy Names Sister Mary Hurley on a small farm in North Spokane. Spokane’s L’Arche is now comprised of three homes in the Gonzaga University area.

L’Arche offers a loving family environment for adults with disabilities – the “core members” – to live, work, serve, play and pray together with other core members, as well as community assistants, volunteers, members of the Board of Directors and caregivers.

Doneen moved into L’Arche’s Harvest House over 20 years ago, and has flourished in the loving and accepting environment the community provides. On the walls in his simply furnished room, Doneen proudly displays over 50 gold, silver and bronze medals he won over the years swimming in the Special Olympics. Always the outgoing one, he excitedly greets Harvest House guests and eagerly guides them through the rooms he shares with four other core members and five assistants. His friendly and innocent nature endears him to everyone he meets.

Life in the L’Arche homes is very similar to that of any other family home. Members get up in the morning and prepare for work, eat breakfast and catch the bus. Those who stay home during the day spend their time cooking, cleaning, running errands and attending meetings. In the evenings, everyone gathers to eat dinner, finish chores, and spend time with one another.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the L’Arche communities is the spiritual life of the community. Prayer is an essential part of community life. Each of the three houses has a prayer room available 24 hours a day, and every evening the members of each household come together for quiet prayer – to reflect, sing, pray and be quiet together. Though the Spokane community is connected to St. Aloysius Parish and has strong Catholic roots, it is an ecumenical community – welcoming people of other Christian traditions, other faiths, and those without faith.

“We really believe that L’Arche was inspired by God,” said Michelle Cobb, a community coordinator for L’Arche Spokane. “The spirituality of L’Arche centers around relationships – accepting others as they are. It’s a spirituality that can be lived in any faith tradition.”

Relationships are a crucial element of L’Arche. Members have a simple lifestyle which gives priority to relationships. L’Arche commits itself to accompanying community core members throughout their entire life, if that is what the member wants. Even when a core member reaches an age or stage where his needs can no longer be met in one of L’Arche Spokane’s three homes, members of the L’Arche community will keep in contact with him – visiting, writing letters, making phone calls – no matter what hospital or nursing home he is in. After all, becoming a member of L’Arche means becoming part of a family.

Cathy Klaus, Executive Director of L’Arche Spokane, believes the program is special and unique. “L’Arche is about building community. It is not social work. It is as much for the benefit of the assistants as it is for the core members. It is about finding a whole new way of looking at the world,” she said.

Core members are encouraged, if they are able, to seek employment. L’Arche community members work in a variety of places and do a variety of things. Richard Deshon, the founding L’Arche core member 30 years ago, spends his days at the Conocco station on Freya, cleaning the pumps and sweeping. Others have worked at the GAP, for Pepsi, on janitorial staffs, at Taco Bell and in retirement homes.

“We encourage everyone, if they are able, to seek meaningful work,” said Cobb. “Everyone must have a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning.”

Cobb also explained that it is crucial to help core members gain a sense of independence. Employment is one element of the independence gaining process. Core members are also encouraged to take the bus or walk to work, shopping centers, classes and church. Those who need a little extra assistance take the Para-Transit, a van system specifically designed for disabled members of the Spokane community.

“The location of the homes is essential to these folks having independence,” said Klaus. Since most core members are unable to drive, a location in the heart of the community near shopping centers, churches and a bus line is crucial for L’Arche’s mission of integrating the core members into the community.

L’Arche Spokane’s location near Gonzaga University has benefited the university community as well, since Gonzaga students often seek employment or volunteer opportunities with L’Arche. Some students even find themselves called to become part of the community after graduation – becoming assistants and moving into the homes to live and work beside the core members.

Members of the community attend many events together, supporting each other’s accomplishments and undertakings. They also come together as a community to celebrate special events like birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs or job promotions, arrivals and farewells.

“This is what L’Arche is about,” said Klaus, pointing to the big felt wall-hanging in the main office that uses pictures to describe L’Arche’s mission. “Helping others, welcoming people, relationships, faith, home, work, activities, solidarity, society and choices.”

Klaus became Executive Director of L’Arche Spokane seven years ago. When asked why she decided to get involved in L’Arche in an administrative capacity, she said simply, “I didn’t. God did.”

Though the journey thus far has been a challenging one, Klaus said she would never go back. Working with the core members has taught her a lot about herself and her priorities.

“I’ve had to learn to be more patient with myself,” she said. “If I do that, then I’m able to be more patient with the core members.”

“I’ve also learned to be myself. I don’t have to wear a mask. They don’t. They’re absolutely authentic – it’s refreshing,” she said.

Since Klaus took over as director, the L’Arche community has seen some big changes, including the opening of their third home – Trinity House – in 2002, which joined Harvest and Nazareth Houses. The name is special, and the community labored over the choice for quite a while before unanimously agreeing on Trinity, the heartfelt suggestion of 30-year member Richard Deshon.

“Trinity is the third, and that’s the Holy Spirit,” he explained simply to Klaus, after spending serious time thinking over the choice.

While some of the funding for running the three L’Arche Spokane homes comes from the state of Washington, L’Arche relies on the support of the community for both financial donations and contributions of time. Recently, as costs continue to increase and state funding decreases, Klaus and the volunteer Board of Directors have begun searching for other ways to secure the future of L’Arche Spokane. So, beginning this year, L’Arche has begun a fund-raising campaign to build an endowment to secure the future of the community.

The campaign to establish the Sister Mary Hurley Endowment kicks off on Saturday, May 21, with the Annual Spring Dinner Dance. The event begins at 6 p.m. and will include raffles, fine dining, a community presentation and dancing. Tickets are $50 per person and a portion of each ticket is tax deductible.

Klaus encourages members of the Spokane community to learn more about L’Arche and get involved in the L’Arche community. “These folks hold many gifts for you,” she said. “You just have to open your ears and listen.”

(For more information about L’Arche Spokane, to secure tickets to the Spring Dinner Dance or to make a donation to the community, please call the office at (509) 483-0438.)

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