In 2010, I spent three months living in a community with adults with severe intellectual disabilities. I was assigned to Peace House, one of five homes at L’Arche Harbor House in Jacksonville, Florida. I shared life under that roof with four core members with various disabilities and three other assistants. Looking back, I realized this was my first introduction to cohousing.
When I arrived, the core members and assistants immediately accepted me with whoops of joy and hugs – one of the purest, and most sincere welcomes that I have ever experienced.
“Sharing life” meant living together as a family and creating a warm household based on support and compassion. On weekdays, some core members went to their jobs at local establishments and others attended L’Arche’s art workshop to create pieces for display and sale. We planned weekend outings and afternoon activities based on collective interests and hobbies, cooked dinner (followed by the occasional dance party in the kitchen), and sang along to the guitar at night. It was the most freeing and love-filled summer of my life.
“If human beings are to develop their abilities and talents to the full, realizing all their potential as individuals, they need an environment that fosters personal growth. They need to form relationships with others within families and communities. They need to live in an atmosphere of trust, security and mutual affection. They need to be valued, accepted and supported in real and warm relationships.”
Today, there are 147 member communities of L’Arche International across 35 countries. L’Arche has a beautiful mission – to welcome those who have intellectual disabilities, and to give them a valid place in society.
It wasn’t just an AmeriCorps program or volunteer experience to me. More than I could give to the members, I received the greatest gift: the permission to be completely myself, without judgment, and to love others with my whole heart. While there were daily challenges and frustrations, I mostly remember the experiences of belly-aching laughter and joy.
What I learned from my first cohousing experience
When one of the men in Peace House first joined the L’Arche community, he spoke in incoherent mutters and two-word sentences. Dealing with trauma, he would rock in his chair and barely crack a smile. After a few years of sharing life with nurturing assistants and friends at L’Arche, he laughed for the first time. While we never knew if he understood everything we said, he began responding to questions and speaking in fuller phrases. He eventually became a man full of giggles and toothless smiles.
On my last day at L’Arche, I crouched beside him and gave him a heartfelt goodbye. I will never forget how he looked into my eyes with incredible understanding and sadness. He knew exactly what I was saying, and we shared a hug as two humans, as friends.
The special thing about the L’Arche community is there is no real difference between the members and live-in assistants. We learn from each other and grow, creating a space of belonging. While they were marginalized, pitied, and perceived as broken by society growing up, the core members were given permission to thrive as part of the L’Arche community. Outside, their gifts were discarded or undiscovered – a rejection that I believe causes their psyche to suffer in ways we cannot fully measure.
We all have a common desire: to belong. To be loved. How much further can we nurture and advance our human potential through creating more communities of inclusion? When we have dignity in our work and lives, when our words and actions are met with acceptance from others, when we participate in equal, mutually transformative relationships – it is incredible how much we blossom. The personal growth in each individual has ripple effects that will fuel the collective growth of our community and human experience.