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L'Arche helps those in need and their helpers

August 13, 2010 | 04:43 AM
Most Long Islanders may have never heard of L'Arche, and one local resident is working to change that.

Sabrina Glass of Port Jefferson has been involved with L'Arche, which assists people with developmental disabilities, for over 10 years, and earlier this year joined the national board. On Aug. 15 she will be holding a luncheon in her home to inform locals of L'Arche's mission in the U.S.

L'Arche is an international movement that creates communities where developmentally disabled people and others without disabilities live and work together. The communities typically consist of one to eight houses with four or five individuals with disabilities — whom L'Arche refers to as core members — plus assistants.

In the early 1960s, French-Canadian philosopher and spiritual leader Jean Vanier was traveling through Europe and found developmentally disabled people in France were treated poorly, said Glass. Vanier devoted the rest of his life to creating homes for the developmentally disabled.

In 1964, Vanier started the first home in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he invited two developmentally disabled men to live with him instead of the institutions where they had been residing. The first L'Arche community in the U.S. opened in Erie, Pa., in 1972.

Vanier named his organization L'Arche, French for "the ark" and a reference to Noah's ark, to convey that L'Arche communities are places of refuge and companionship, said Joan Mahler, national zone coordinator at L'Arche USA's national headquarters in Portland, Ore. While Vanier was inspired by his belief in God when he founded the organization, Mahler said L'Arche is interdenominational and has members of all faiths.

Many of the volunteer assistants who live and work in L'Arche communities are recent college graduates or people drawn for an experience of service, according to Mahler. It is the home setting that sets L'Arche apart from other living options, said Mahler, who began as a nightly volunteer at L'Arche 20 years ago.

Glass worked as an interior designer for 25 years, but was inspired to get involved in L'Arche by her sister, Lucy Melville, who has developmental disabilities.

"It's put a lot of things in perspective for me," said Glass, who said her mother met Jean Vanier 20 years ago. "I just became disillusioned by some of the superficiality, this tendency to forget what's really important in life."

There will be several guests at Glass' luncheon including Mahler; John Hildreth, L'Arche USA board president from Texas; Anna Davis-Hutto, director of development and communications from Atlanta; a core member and an assistant from the Syracuse L'Arche community; and author Stephen Post. Post is the author of several books including "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" and is the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is also a professor of preventive medicine at SBU.

Post has known Jean Vanier, now in his 80s, for about 20 years and says the founder of L'Arche is one of the real luminaries of our time who deserves to be mentioned alongside the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa.

There is only only one L'Arche community in New York, in Syracuse, just 16 in the U.S. and 135 around the world in 36 countries.

Those interested in attending Glass' luncheon on August 15 may email her at sabrinaglass1@gmail.com.

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