National nonprofit organization L’Arche USA has set up dozens of residential homes throughout the country where people with and without disabilities can live together.
Their next home could be in Frederick County.
The local chapter of L’Arche began in 2008, when Jeanne Kuhn began holding meetings at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg with other interested people.
“I was working at a sheltered workshop at the time with adults with disabilities, and I could see firsthand that they needed community, a sense of family friendship outside of work,” Kuhn, now chairwoman of the board of directors, said. “And so, when I heard about L’Arche, I thought this is what we need in Frederick.”
For the past 12 years, L’Arche Frederick has held social events on the third Friday of every month where people can come together, eat food and do other activities. These events have been held at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Frederick up until the pandemic, when they went online.
“For so many people with disabilities, they might not have easy access to social activities to do, especially at nighttime, so a Friday night gathering was a really great place to start,” said Megan Guzman, executive director of L’Arche Frederick.
Prior to Guzman joining the nonprofit, it was all volunteer-based. But after the chapter achieved “project status” from the national organization, it hired a full-time executive director to help in the development of a residential home.
“So now that the community has a community leader and executive director, our next stage is to ensure that we are licensed by the state of Maryland as a residential provider through [the Developmental Disabilities Administration],” Guzman said.
The home, which will have six bedrooms, will house three people with intellectual disabilities — the “core members” — and three people without disabilities, the “assistants.” They all live and eat together. While the assistants are considered primary caretakers, Guzman said they often become more like a family than anything else. The level of care and compassion is dramatically different from a typical caretaker relationship.
“We know that we can’t welcome everyone into our homes, and we also know that the model isn’t for everyone,” Guzman said. “We really emphasize intentional community living in a faith-based environment. And so we want to be an option for someone who desires that sort of living, for somebody who desires that sort of lifestyle.”
Guzman lived in L’Arche communities for the past 13 years, half of which were spent in a L’Arche household.
“I was really encouraged to lead with my gifts, and given the opportunity, to work alongside people with disabilities and really develop these wonderful peer relationships with people with disabilities,” Guzman said.
Core members must be eligible for a Medicaid waiver through the state of Maryland. Assistants don’t need any formal training to apply but will go through training and orientation with L’Arche once they are accepted.
“L’Arche is kind of a microcosm, so to speak, of what community could be, in living together and in intentionally bringing out the best in each other, encouraging each other and loving each other,” Kuhn said.
The nonprofit is currently fundraising for the house, which it had planned to launch sometime in 2020. But with the pandemic, it has moved those plans back to the summer of 2021. Fundraising is integral to getting the house, as Maryland funding for state service providers is not guaranteed for the first six months after opening.
In the meantime, it is still searching for a property to either buy or rent, preferably close to downtown Frederick.
“We are also reaching out to to the community to see if anybody has knowledge of or access to a property that might meet our needs,” Guzman said. “We really hope to be close to the downtown area, but we are certainly open to any environment.”
Guzman mentioned, however, that L’Arche is aware of the financial difficulties the year has brought to many people. She asked that if people cannot donate, they might consider having L’Arche speak at their prayer circles, churches, or civic groups.
“We really just want to spread the message of L’Arche and get our message out there,” she said.