We’ve spared no ink advocating for better behavioral health services in Pierce County, but there is another group of folks who too often go forgotten, people with developmental disabilities, and they belong to one of the most marginalized groups in the world.
But for the past 40 years, Pierce County has had in its midst a small, but exemplary model for how to care for persons with intellectual limitations.
L’Arche Tahoma Hope began in 1977 when David Rothrock and the Rev. Peter Byrne were co-pastors of St. Leo’s Parish in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Two of their neighbors, Fred Kobel and Greg Hanon, both of whom had developmental disabilities, became frequent dinner guests.
It wasn’t long before the four friends became housemates, working side by side volunteering at different places throughout Tacoma, one of which was Nativity House, a daytime shelter in downtown Tacoma that Rothrock also started.
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(Nativity House is currently the largest and most comprehensive facility serving low-income and homeless men and women in Pierce County.)
Before serving at St. Leo’s, Rothrock spent several years in a L’Arche community in France where he worked with a Jesuit priest named Jean Vanier.
Vanier’s vision of L’Arche took shape in 1964, at a time when many people with cognitive disabilities were relegated to institutions. Vanier recognized that all human beings, handicapped or not, needed the security of home, structure and community.
In a radical philosophy wherein the weak heal the strong, Vanier put the biblical Beatitudes into practice.
In a L’Arche home, the nondisabled assistants, many of whom are just out of college, are more than just caregivers. They typically give up 1 to 5 years of their lives for little pay. They do so for a chance to live with core members (people with disabilities) as equals.
Today, there are 150 L’Arche communities in 37 countries, and we are lucky to have four of them in the greater Tacoma area.
Frequent shoppers at local farmers’ markets will recognize the beautiful hanging baskets under the L’Arche Tahoma Hope Farm and Gardens signs. Plants, produce and crafts are also sold at fair-trade shops and several churches throughout the county. In the winter, the non-profit sells Christmas trees.
Executive director Laura Giddings said L’Arche Tahoma Hope is seeking broader engagement with the community. She says, “Approximately 10-12 percent of Pierce County residents have an intellectual disability of some kind and they’re trying to navigate a community not ready for them.”
It’s why L’Arche Tahoma Hope is building a new welcome center; it’s scheduled to open in 2018 and will include more day programs and outreach opportunities for both residents and community members.
Giddings credits the program’s success to the relationships nurtured under a L’Arche roof and the transformational gifts offered by core members, gifts like an honest self and what it means to love and find joy in daily activities.
L’Arche is the French word for ark. It was chosen because it symbolizes shelter from a storm, but at a L’Arche home, the answer to who is sheltering whom really depends on whom you ask.