In 1964, Canadian Jean Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities to live with him in an old house in Trosly-Breuil, France.
He named the house L’Arche after Noah’s Ark, and gradually welcomed not only more men and women with developmental disabilities, but also assistants who would live and work with them.
That model has since grown into an international federation of more than 120 communities in nearly 30 countries. For going on 18 years now, one of those communities can be found in the Forest City.
At L’Arche London, core members participate in a variety of work and activities including arts and crafts, volunteering, outings and — at once a week — helping put on something of a musical extravaganza.
Recently, the organization’s Monday Morning Music Club was named as one of three finalists for the Pillar Community Innovation Award and although it didn’t ultimately win, the program has plenty of reasons to celebrate.
“When someone doesn’t have full vocabulary or the full depth of conversation that someone might have who isn’t intellectually disabled, they find a voice through music,” said Laurel Martin, music club leader. “Music is an international language, one that builds bridges, connects people . . . one that makes people feel valuable when they are the ones sharing.”
Martin describes the program as “pretty much an hour of live karaoke,” where musicians work with L’Arche core members on any variety of music.
Musicians, such as Martin, might come in with some favourite songs, but it’s always up to the core members to decide the music of the day.
As she puts it with a smile, if someone wants to sing You Are My Sunshine every week for 15 years, they are more than welcome to do so.
“If that’s the song that’s important to someone — that gives them a place in that gathering — then we’ll sing it,” said Martin, who is also the L’Arche volunteer co-ordinator. “No matter if we have concert violinists volunteering with me, or anybody, it’s really their hour.”
Melissa Lavallee is a L’Arche core member and a big supporter of the program. She said she feels good when she chooses a song and enjoys sharing it with whomever comes out to the club on a given night.
That spirit of openness and sharing is what Marietta Drost, executive director of L’Arche London, is most excited about.
There are core members who have musical skills, Drost said, and no place to use them.
A karaoke bar, for example, doesn’t necessarily welcome people with intellectual disabilities in the same way the club does.
It’s a very “common ground” place, Drost explained, where support and nurturing happens on a constant basis.
“Whether somebody is kind of mumbling the words or is singing it very articulately, they’re being celebrated in the same way. It isn’t a condescending way,” she said. “They’re sharing their joy, their heart. It gives them a place in the week to express themselves.”
L’Arche London will soon have its own common ground — a single location where the day programs and events like the music club can happen together in one place.
In this case, that place will be in Lambeth; at least once the Join Us For the Journey capital campaign is finished.
Drost said the capital campaign has reached approximately $1.45 million of its $2.5 million goal.
The expectation, she adds, is to see shovels in the ground later this year.
The L’Arche London Banquet, the organization’s largest annual fundraiser, is set for Friday, Feb. 26 at Doubletree by Hilton (300 King St.).
Tickets are available online at www.larchelondon.org. For additional information, call 519-652-9778 ext 226