The new year welcomes a new face to an organization that has been working to ensure a better life for folks with disabilities in the community for nearly 50 years.
Dominic Opaka is the new executive director of L’Arche Winnipeg, a non-profit which operates six group homes and one apartment for people with intellectual disabilities throughout east Winnipeg.
"Former director Jim Lapp had a strong passion to ensure that the gifts of people with disabilities are known, that they would have connections, that they would be valued members of society," Opaka, 40, said. "I want to continue that legacy, and ensure that people with learning disabilities in our homes are put at the centre of the conversation, that they take part and participate in the issues that affect their lives on a day-to-day basis."
Opaka, who is originally from Kenya, got started with L’Arche, an international organization founded in France, at a location in Scotland after graduating from his studies in 2011.
"I had intended to stay there for a year after my studies," he said. "But the mission and identity captured me. The ability of sharing life with people with disabilities, as well as to see them as people first, not their disability. I wasn’t used to that traditionally from my background."
Opaka spent nearly seven years there, before returning to Kenya for a year to regroup. But L’Arche’s mission kept pulling at him.
"L’Arche is one place where you find a blend of different cultures from all over the world working together to bring about a more humane society," he said. "That’s something that has stuck with my heart the last 10 years."
Three years ago, he moved to Edmonton to work with the organization, first as a house leader and then as head of six group homes.
"After that, I thought I was ready to take over a new responsibility, to continue fostering an environment within community that responds to changing needs of members with disabilities, and to support diversity," he said.
In the fall, he applied for the executive director position in Winnipeg, following Lapp’s retirement announcement. When he got the job, Opaka picked up and moved to Manitoba.
"I want to see a transformative society where we no longer have to talk about looking at people with disabilities as a bad thing anymore, but as people with something to put on the table," he said.
The organization also runs L’Arche Tova Cafe (119 Regent Ave. W), which marks its 10th anniversary this year.
"It’s something we want to build on," Opaka said. "There’s the business part of it, but what really matters for us is the place where people with learning disabilities can say they belong. If we’re talking about a more humane society, each one of us needs to have a voice."
Opaka is also hopeful that come May, conditions with regard to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have improved enough to allow for the annual Walk with L’Arche to take place again. He will also be working to drum up support for the Jim Lapp Endowment Fund, and begin planning for L’Arche Winnipeg’s 50th anniversary in 2023.
"We want to involve the local community, to take the conversation to a different level," he said.
Sheldon Birnie is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at email@example.com Call him at 204-697-7112