Two years ago, Jackie Nunemaker received a standing ovation at the L’Arche Frederick variety show. The audience cheered as Jackie performed the chicken dance in a chicken suit and giggled throughout her entire performance.
Some may see Jackie, who is 54, as marginalized and dependent upon society. But for the audience at the variety show, Jackie was a star, a person who freely gives the gifts she has.
Jackie's sister, Sandy Messner, discovered L’Arche Frederick when she was looking for opportunities for Jackie to socialize where she is accepted. Sandy found much more for her sister. At L’Arche Frederick monthly gatherings, adults with disabilities, their friends and families share time together – singing, dancing, doing crafts and enjoying each other’s company. ”My first experience with L’Arche Frederick was overwhelming, as they showered my sister Jackie with love and kindness,” Sandy said
Pat O’Connor, L’Arche Board member said, “What makes Jackie so special is her infectious joy that radiates out to everyone.”
Unconditional acceptance is at the core of L’Arche Frederick. L’Arche is French for “The Ark.” Up to 80 people attend L’Arche monthly events, including members of the Best Buds Group from Mount Saint Mary’s University.
When asked why he would want to spend a Friday night away from their peers, one student responded, “The people here at these events are our peers. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Sheryl Silvern, Therapeutic Recreation Director for Frederick County Parks and Rec Club brings over 35 individuals to the monthly L’Arche events. “They are number one on our calendar. Everyone is welcome and we have great fun interacting with each other,” she said.
While the events are a way to serve adults with intellectual disabilities, L’Arche Frederick is striving for something bigger. The organization is part of a larger movement to create communities of loving, life-long homes where adults with and without intellectual disabilities choose to live together. Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier started L’Arche in 1964, when he invited two men from a nearby overcrowded institution to live with him in his home. Today, L'Arche is an international federation of 150 communities in 38 countries. Every person in the community is valued for the gifts and talents they possess. Whether with or without disabilities, the community members learn from each other and grow together.
Frederick would be the first L’Arche community in Maryland. Sarah Endres, a sophomore at Mount Saint Mary’s University, recently volunteered at L’Arche in Washington, D.C.
“The moment I stepped into the L’Arche community, I instantly felt welcomed. While there, I learned that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity,” she said.
Pat O’Connor explains, “In our homes, we will provide traditional residential services, but with several elements that make what we do unique. L’Arche is about creating a family environment, so those without intellectual disabilities live in the home, not as staff, but as vital community members. At L’Arche, spirituality is a vital component to who we are. We encourage all members of the community to worship in whatever way brings them strength and comfort. And we have fun. Celebrations are an integral part of L’Arche. There is so much in life to celebrate.”
Paola Ripoll has also attended L’Arche Frederick events for many years. At 41, she lives with her parents, works in a school cafeteria and has an active social life. “My dream is to live in a L’Arche home,” she said. “Everyone is joyful, and they like to talk with me. They like to dance, sing and have fun. I will never stop going to L’Arche activities until I’m 90 years old!”
Her mother, Isabel, concurs. “Living at L’Arche would give Paola a chance to live more independently yet stay connected with her family. And, as a parent, L'Arche is a comforting thought when I think about Paola's future after we're gone.”