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L’Arche working to erase stigma

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L’Arche Winnipeg members are shown at a recent celebration.


L’Arche Winnipeg members are shown at a recent celebration. Photo Store

L’Arche Winnipeg was a godsend for the Delaquis family.

Nicole Delaquis, 61, has lived in the organization’s care since 1976 and has been given the chance to thrive. Nicole, who has slight mental deficiency and bipolar disorder, lives at the organization’s first home, L’Aîné (French for eldest, first-born) on Rosseau Avenue E. The home opened in 1973.

Originally from Notre Dame de Lourdes, Nicole came to L’Arche after a brief stay in an institution in Portage la Prairie. She lived on a L’Arche-run farm in Lorette before returning to live in Winnipeg.

Family patriarch Marcel died shortly after Nicole joined the organization, and as mother Florina began dealing with dementia and ultimately succumbing last November, L’Arche gradually played an increasingly important role in family life throughout the years. Nicole’s brother, Ron, observed that his sister was comfortable with her new friends almost immediately.

"After an hour, hour and a half at my mom’s home, Nicole would always be ready to go back to her home," Ron, 63, said. "Right from the get-go, she embraced L’Arche, that was her home."

He has seen the camaraderie grow between Nicole and other residents Tricia, Ross, Ricky, and Clive in their years living together under the same roof along with up to five other live-in caregivers at a time. In addition to friendships with fellow residents and staff, Nicole has a volunteer friend who comes to visit her regularly.

"I like it here," Nicole said. "I like that my room is by Tricia’s room."

All five in the house have been with L’Arche for the better portion of its history in Winnipeg, which began in 1973, and even its overall history. L’Arche was started in France by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964 when he invited two men with developmental challenges to live with him.

L’Arche Winnipeg community leader Jim Lapp, who is in his second four-year term in the role, explained that attitudes toward people with such challenges have changed in the last 50 years, as they have been better accepted into local communities rather than be institutionalized. In Canada, education is now provided to these individuals, which Lapp said wasn’t the case when he was growing up and is still not available in several countries around the world.

"Almost everyone who’s coming out of schools now has experience with someone with a disability," Lapp, 63, explained over coffee at the L’Arche Tova Café. "I had experience (with a friend’s brother who had been institutionalized in Orillia, Ont.), but most people didn’t have any experience."

Even knowing someone with a disability growing up, Lapp said he gained a much better understanding through his work with the organization, noting that for staff, their job creates a two-way transformative relationship.

"People with a disability are very accepting, and they are also very forgiving," Lapp said. "I was fairly anguished coming out of high school and even university, and there was a healing for me, that acceptance."

Today, there are 131 communities in 34 countries, including 26 in Canada. The Winnipeg community is made up of about 60 members. Lapp said though attitudes among the community-at-large are improving, there is still a long way to go in breaking down social isolation.

"There are people outside of L’Arche who get to know people with a disability, and they’re very touched by them," Lapp said. "But, generally, as a society, we still don’t do that, to make known their gifts."

Lapp said L’Arche has developed its attitudes, too, seeking more feedback from its clients on the direction of the community, including who is named community leader. As well, though L’Arche is a religious organization, it accepts people from all faiths and allows its members to make their own religious choices.

For Nicole, living at L’Aîné is a stark contrast to her time in Portage, which Ron described as "hell" and "a prison".

Also, after observing his mother’s later years living in care, Ron became more impressed with the level of care L’Arche provides.

"There’s something those types of homes could learn from L’Arche about how to look after people," the Wildwood resident said. "All these guys are engaged. They just don’t sit them down and forget about them. They work with them. They talk with them.

"They’re going to Tim Hortons, or going shopping, or to work."

Several L’Arche members are given the opportunity to pursue employment, with ImagineAbility and WASO (Work and Social Opportunities) serving as two of the larger supporters. Residents perform tasks like putting together toasters or sorting recycling.

Another opportunity is to work at L’Arche’s very own Tova Café, which opened at 119 Regent Ave. W, just a block from the L’Arche offices, in 2012. L’Arche members work to greet people at the restaurant, among other duties they perform.

Joyleen Rotich, one of the organization’s two homes co-ordinators, explained there is plenty of leisure time at the homes, and there are activities ranging from game nights to barbecues to visits to Rainbow Stage and local sporting events. Rotich said the organization works to help all its members live as independently as possible in all walks of life.

"They are showing their gifts," said Rotich, who has been with L’Arche for eight years.

Lapp explained the local community has maxed out in terms of size, and said he would like to see seeds sown for a second community in Manitoba, perhaps in west Winnipeg or outside the capital. He hopes to see progress in the next decade, but said expansion is handled cautiously and slowly, keeping in mind Vanier’s humble beginnings.

"If you’re having relationships, how big can you get?" he said. "I would welcome and be looking for (local expansion), but I can’t guarantee that’s going to happen."

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