It isn’t unusual for a college student to forget their extra-curricular activities the day they graduate.
Claire McGrath, a student at Mount St. Mary’s University, is making hers the start of a career.
McGrath, 21, is moving to Jacksonville, Florida, to become a live-in assistant with L’Arche. The organization sets up houses and communities where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live with these assistants who do not have disabilities.
The Laurel native became involved with the organization Best Buds during her freshman year at the Mount. Best Buds works with people who have intellectual disabilities through the Arc of Frederick County and the Arc of Carroll County. The club is run through the college’s office of social justice.
“I ended up loving it,” said McGrath, who was quickly made co-director of Best Buds.
In the leadership role, she was contacted by Jeanne Kuhn, who is heading up a planning committee for a L’Arche community in Frederick. The committee, Quest for L’Arche, asked McGrath if Best Buds would like to get involved in the monthly activities they plan for people with disabilities.
These activities are meant for fun and also to promote a L’Arche community in Frederick, which will take significant time, planning and funding. McGrath said initially Best Buds volunteers just helped out at the activities, held Friday nights at Saint Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Frederick. Eventually they started planning the activities, which include Bingo, bands, dancing and arts and crafts.
“The focus is on learning from one another,” McGrath said. “They’re really there to form relationships with the community.”
The population L’Arche serves includes people with autism, Down syndrome and various other developmental disabilities involving lower IQs, McGrath said. The end goal for L’Arche is for them to start a community of homes where they have a safe place to live with people who don’t have disabilities. This would preferably be in downtown Frederick for walkability and integration into the community, McGrath said.
McGrath, who majors in biology and minors in psychology, said working with this population has taught her that there is a major distinction between empathy and pity.
“Pity places you above someone. Empathy recognizes the challenges they face, but also the gifts they have,” she said. “I don’t think I realized I had so much to learn from the people I work with.”
One major thing McGrath has learned is the importance of slowing down, being present and forming relationships. She said this is often lost in the competitive world of a college student and society in general.
Bill Derbyshire, a fellow member of the Quest for L’Arche planning committee, said McGrath has a drive and wisdom that seems to come from faith “and her strong belief that all people should be treated with respect and dignity.”
Since McGrath has been involved with L’Arche’s Friday night activities, Derbyshire said attendance has increased from around 15 to almost 70.
“Claire is an extremely hardworking and dedicated young lady,” he said.
Once she graduates from college, McGrath will move to Jacksonville to become a L’Arche house assistant for at least a year. She applied through L’Arche U.S.A. and indicated that she wanted to stay on the east coast. A recruiter found the Jacksonville community to be the best fit.
While in the house, which she has already visited, McGrath will help residents with their daily routines. This could include taking showers, getting dressed, taking medications, cooking dinner, running errands and going to work.
McGrath’s community has about five L’Arche homes in it. Her house will serve about five people with disabilities.
“All of their value are in line with mine,” McGrath said of the organization. “It could really help me grow a lot.”