“We view our core members as friends, not clients,” says Maria Lezama, a volunteers’ coordinator for L’Arche Cork.
L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) began in 1964 when Jean Vanier invited two men, who were confined within a local institution because of their intellectual disabilities, to come live with him. Together they shared a small house in the French village, Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris which became their home. From this simple beginning, L’Arche has grown to 149 communities, 14 projects in 37 countries worldwide.
The first community in Ireland was founded in 1978 in Kilmoganny, Co. Kilkenny. Since then, communities have been established in Belfast, Cork and Dublin. L’Arche in Ireland is currently home to over 50 people with intellectual disabilities and the assistants with whom they share their lives.
Maria made the move from Trinidad to Ireland for two things: the Irish culture and L’Arche. She began working there for one year as a volunteer and has now been there for 18 years. “It brings out a better me. It put me in touch with who I want to be,” she says.
L’Arche Cork is a community where people with or without learning disabilities help each other “share life” and develop mutual relationships. It is comprised of five homes; An Croí (the heart), Suaimhneas, (place of rest) An Teaghlach (the hearth), An Cuan (the harbour) and Dochas (hope) and a workshop Le Cheile (together).
L’Arche Cork is based on participation from the community; everyone has a part to play no matter what their age, ability or skill. Members simply need to have an open mind and heart to all relationships and a willingness to help out and serve the community through its day-to-day tasks.
At the centre of it all is developing relationships with the person with a disability. L’Arche Cork believes that this relationship is mutually transformative, a sign of hope and a powerful witness in our world.
Today, there are 20 core members living together in the homes and eight project workers who join during the day programme in Le Cheile.
According to Maria the community is inspired by the spirit of the Beatitude as found in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-11, however they are welcoming and respectful of each member’s religious tradition. Maria had always been interested in working in a faith-based community, as faith plays a major role in her life.
“Each one of us is challenged by the Gospel to become more deeply aware of God’s love for us in Christ, to rejoice, delight in and respond to that love for us. One of the way in which we respond to God’s love is in our service of God and one another,” she says.
Along with being a volunteers’ coordinator, Maria is also a pastoral coordinator, recruitment administrator, Health and Safety Officer, training coordinator and safeguarding officer.
“(Working with L’Arche) changes you. We have many volunteers who say their hearts have been changed because of it,” she says. Some of the qualities used to describe their volunteers are courage, flexibility, openness, warmth and generosity of spirit. Qualities that Maria greatly exemplifies during her tasks and interactions with others.
“Ministry is about mission: witnessing and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Mission is about ministry: proclaiming God’s love in Christ in our service of one another. We might use the language of being ‘called’ to a ‘ministry’, there being many different forms that such ministry can take. Whatever form such ministry takes, it will bear witness to Christ and Christ’s love for us,” she says.
While working at L’Arche, Maria had a tragic death happen in her family. When she went back home for the funeral, she questioned why it had to be him. Upon returning back to L’Arche, when her faith wavered, a resident came up to her and said: “Don’t worry Maria, he is in Heaven now with my mom.” This taught Maria a big lesson about the residents and her faith.
“People with disabilities have a deep sense of love with God. We have a lady who always says, ‘God loves me no matter what’. They believe no matter what, they will be home with God.”
As Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche said: “In living this call faithfully, we discover the inner beauty of those we serve and reveal this beauty to them and to the world. We also encounter our own beauty.”
L’Arche is special because it is “where people with or without disabilities foster relationships”, Maria says. “It’s a place where diversity in faith work together. We have a Syrian volunteer and a Russian volunteer. With what you see in the news, they wouldn’t normally get along but here, they work together for the love of our core members.”
When it comes to the Irish attitude towards people with disabilities, Maria says: “It’s changing. Some people view them as vulnerable and speak to them in condescending tones but people are becoming more accepting.”
She believes that part of this has to do with more employment opportunities as it raises awareness.
To this, Maria quotes Jean Vanier: “The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of L’Arche…and at the heart of being human.”