Isolation and a lack of housing are major challenges in the Lower Mainland, particularly for adults with developmental disabilities.

That’s why non-profit L’Arche Greater Vancouver has launched an ambitious campaign to raise $30 million for expanding services and housing for people with disabilities.

“People at L’Arche are very good at building relationships, and in a city when many people feel isolated and very alone, L’Arche offers community,” L’Arche Foundation president Audrey Staudacher told a press conference April 8.

The organization has been serving Burnaby for 45 years, offering homes for people with and without developmental disabilities to live together. But current structures are aging and not as accessible as many residents need them to be. As a result L’Arche is hoping to raise $30 million to build a brand-new, three-storey building with three L’Arche homes (a total of 22 bedrooms), 10 suites for semi-independent living, and 29 affordable rental units.

The new building will also include also a rooftop garden, chapel, library, community spaces, and offices.

The current structure at 7401 Sussex Avenue is “old and tired,” said Ted Kuntz, president of the L’Arche board of directors, in a video message. “It has served us well for 45 years, but it has outlived its best-before date.”

People with developmental disabilities “require various levels of support” that change as they age, and the new building (built on the old site) will offer more accessible options.

L’Arche is already about halfway to its $30 million goal thanks to significant contributions from B.C. Housing ($6.1 million), the City of Burnaby ($1 million), the Sisters of St. Ann ($500,000), and other donors.

“The City of Burnaby is 100 per cent behind you in this campaign,” said Burnaby’s acting mayor Colleen Jordan at the press conference. “Our staff is proud to have worked with the architects to put together this proposal,” and the city may come up with funds over and above the $1 million pledge, she said.

Burnaby city councilor Paul McDonell has personal reasons for backing L’Arche: his aunt was one of its first residents many years ago.

“I always tell people: Geraldine was the happiest in her life when she got to move into L’Arche. She had friends. She loved her big hats, she loved flowers, but most of all, to her, it was a home away from home. That’s what L’Arche is about: inclusion. Everybody is welcome.”

L’Arche Executive Director Denise Haskett said society has come a long way in recognizing the unique needs of people with developmental disabilities, but more needs to be done.

“Children with developmental disabilities are very much included in our day cares and our school system, however once people reach adulthood, the opportunities for that inclusion are greatly diminished and people can become quite isolated.”

L’Arche fills in the gap, inviting people with and without developmental disabilities to live together, to do chores as their abilities allow, to grow in faith, and to build relationships.

The goal is to have funding and construction in place so that by 2021, residents can move into homes already mortgage- and debt-free. According to Haskett, about 21 adults with developmental disabilities will live in the new building: 10 in suites designed for semi-independent living, and 11 in family-like community settings.  

Executive director Denise Haskett speaking at the press conference. Behind her is a drawing of the L’Arche  “dream home” by a community member.  

The building’s 29 rental units (studios, and one-, two-, or three-bedroom apartments) will be offered at below-market rates. In this way, the campaign addresses a critical issue in addition to accessible housing for the disabled: affordable rental housing.

The L’Arche operation in Burnaby is one branch of an international organization of the same name founded by Canadian Catholic philanthropist Jean Vanier in France in the 1960s.

Vanier didn’t set out to create a global movement; he just befriended two men with developmental disabilities and invited them to live with him in his home. It was such a positive experience, he encouraged others to do the same, and now there are 168 L’Arche communities across 37 countries.

Sister Marie Zarowny, SSA, attended the press conference to express the wholehearted support of the Sisters of St. Ann. She said she has been reflecting on the theme of the campaign, We All Belong.

“Has there ever been a time in the history of our world when this message was more needed? It is L’Arche who can bring that message in a fresh and new way to the world.”

Current residents at the L’Arche site on Sussex Avenue will move into other L’Arche homes in the area as the old structures are torn down and the new ones built. According to Haskett, some have already moved, but there are five residents and four assistants who still need to relocate.

L’Arche’s budget includes buying a home in the neighbourhood and renovating it to provide residents a place to live while construction is ongoing.

L’Arche community members and supporters, including Archbishop J. Michael Miller (fourth from right).