Catholic Vancouver December 03, 2020
Community living in a pandemic: How L’Arche makes it work
Nineteen people with developmental disabilities and their assistants live in homes run by L’Arche Greater Vancouver, an organization founded on principles of intentional community and family-like living.
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, community spirit took on a whole new meaning as L’Arche worked to keep residents safe and its way of life intact.
“It’s been good, but it’s also hard because our members with disabilities are heart people. They just want to give their sister a hug, or their mother a hug, or their friend a hug,” said director of community programs Annette Kuhn.
“It is challenging, but they learn and they understand that they need to keep a distance.”
In March, L’Arche closed all day programs, shut out visitors, and made weekly prayer meetings virtual. It instructed members and assistants who live together to stay in their bubbles, wear masks when stepping outside, avoid crowded spaces, and stay two metres away from anyone who doesn’t live in the home – including family.
Amid all these precautions to keep L’Arche COVID-free, assistants found ways to keep the spirit of intentional community alive.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, I put people in a van and we would go to different houses and honk and visit people at the homes,” said assistant Zenaide Correia. “We’d stop and go to the driveway and people would come out and say hi.”
They would also bake and drop off surprise treats for one another, or paint stones while praying for the neighbourhood and take a walk to distribute them. One group with musical talents even travelled between homes to serenade their fellow L’Arche members from outdoors.
One program that did not change much was Neighbours Helping Neighbours, a free service L’Arche members offer to about 45 local seniors involving outdoor tasks like yard work or recycling.
“We realized it was good for everybody,” said Kuhn. “Our members with disability, they are really caring for their customers,” and were worried about abandoning them during the pandemic. She said besides having to wear masks and not being able to sit down with a cookie or lemonade in a client’s home after the work was done, it was business as usual.
“Our assistants … are so committed and creative, and continue to be creative in how to stay connected with each other, how to help members with disabilities to stay connected, and also finding activities at this time that they can do, enjoy, and feel a sense of purpose.”
Protecting 19 vulnerable people from exposure to COVID-19 has come with sacrifices. Kuhn said L’Arche assistants (some of whom live in the homes full time) have cut down on visiting their own family members, opted for driving or cycling instead of taking public transit, and donned masks anytime they appear in public. While public worship was allowed, some participated in Mass virtually instead of in person to lower the number of people they contacted during the week.
“Our members, many of them are seniors with underlying conditions, so a lot of support is needed.”
L’Arche members with disabilities are also making sacrifices. Christina Bruce misses visiting her mom and dad. Several weeks ago she told The B.C. Catholic, “I see my mom sometimes. We sit, my mom sits over there and I sit over here, two metres apart.”
Patrick Byron celebrated his 57th birthday earlier this year and was able to see his parents and sister – they also had to stay physically apart.
“Pat has a special face shield, that also helps,” said assistant Edith Kamau. Face masks are challenging to use for some L’Arche members because they cover their mouths and noses and make it difficult for them to see the faces of other people. Clear shields and fabric face masks mean Patrick, Kamau, and others, can still go for walks and have picnics in nearby parks.
Now, as winter approaches, the community is once again facing questions about how to adapt, stay healthy, and live like a family.
“We are going into the darker, rainy season of the year so the many options we had to go out and about and connect are not going to be there,” said Kuhn. Assistants have already come up with some ideas, including virtual dinner parties, a secret Santa gift exchange, and even online Zumba classes.
Correia said the community draws strength from prayer and relationship.
“We would say, ‘Right now I am feeling so low.’ We would motivate each other. When it was said out loud, when it was out into the light, it was out on the table and we were able to look at it … that is a way of carrying one another in our minds and in our hearts.”
She added working at L’Arche during a pandemic has been a “grace-filled moment.”
“When the pandemic struck and I saw people working from home, being stuck in their own homes, I didn’t have that. I came here every single day from Monday to Friday. If I wanted to come on Saturdays, I could come on Saturdays. I had a place where I could be with people. I didn’t go into a depression because I didn’t need to; I was around people.”
L’Arche Greater Vancouver is currently trying to raise $6 million for a redevelopment project that will replace their Burnaby facility with a new three-storey centre that will be more accessible to people with disabilities and add space for residential and community programs.
Jacqueline Doering, director of development, said the pandemic has made fundraising a challenge.
“We had to close our doors to the external community to protect our at-risk and vulnerable core members. And this considerably reduced our ability to welcome people to L’Arche, meet and present our big dream to them in person, as well as build strong mutually beneficial relationships.”
L’Arche has received a grant through the archdiocese’s Crisis Response Fund to purchase six heaters for outdoor visits and computer equipment and office furniture to help staff work from home and move day programs online.
The Crisis Response Fund (which, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is running in place of the typical Project Advance campaign this year) is also supporting nine other charities and organizations whose revenues have suffered during this time.
More information about L’Arche and the fundraising campaign is at www.larchevancouver.org.
Project Advance is in its final push as 2020 comes to a close. In a year so unlike other years, the archdiocese’s main fundraising campaign has changed its goals from supporting capital projects to becoming a Crisis Response Fund for ministries in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the next few weeks, The B.C. Catholic will tell the stories of some of the organizations that benefit. See last week’s story about a new initiative called All Were Filled.