A large serving of dignity: L’Arche Atlanta home a place where everyone is equal

The chicken, big chunks of white meat, went first. It popped and sizzled in hot olive oil. Sara Ellet reached for an onion the size of a baseball. A knife flashed and, moments later, the onion was cooking, too. The air filled with the aroma of good things.

John Hudson, bouncing on his feet with impatience, stood at her side. Is anything better than white Texas chili on a cold afternoon?

For Ellet and Hudson, 28 and 30 respectively, their shared moment at the stove was another small declaration of mutual respect: One encourages the other.

They’re residents of L’Arche Atlanta, where people with developmental disabilities live full time with folks who have none. The house, which opened last month in Decatur’s Oakhurst community and is the only L’Arche home in Georgia, has six occupants. That sum is equally comprised by “core residents” — those needing help in their daily lives — and “assistants” who’ve signed up to spend at least a year living with them.

A rambling old farmhouse that once temporarily sheltered homeless people, the L’Arche house is home to Ellet, Hudson, Jessica Bridges, Tim Moore, Terry Hochschild and Lara Swenson.

Bridges and Moore, like Ellet, are assistants, paid small annual salaries to live inside the thick-plaster walls of the L’Arche home. Bridges is the home’s coordinator, making sure schedules are kept, budgets followed. They’re all drivers, appointment-makers, confidants, friends.

Hudson, Hochschild and Swenson are core residents. Each has mental or physical disabilities and needs help in daily life.

So far, said Bridges, the arrangement is living up to the L’Arche principle that people, no matter their handicap, should be treated with dignity in an environment that stresses the spiritual aspects of life.

“This is a way to live in the world that’s hopefully a little more gentle,” said Bridges, 28, who has a master’s degree in divinity and is a deacon in the United Methodist Church.

Hudson was more succinct. “I live here,” he said, “and I like it.”

L’Arche is French for “the ark,” a reference to the floating refuge Noah created at God’s command. It began in 1964 when Frenchman Jean Vanier opened his home to two developmentally disabled adults. He had no grand plan. Vanier simply believed people of differing physical and mental abilities could live together, respecting the capabilities of one another.

“To work for community,” he later wrote, “is to work for humanity.”

His philosophy struck a chord. Today L’Arche operates in 35 countries, with 18 chapters across the United States.

The L’Arche Atlanta home is funded by federal, state and private sources. About 40 percent of its costs are paid by core members’ state and federal disability payments; the balance comes from donations. The home, which L’Arche leases for $1 annually, opened after a multiyear fundraising campaign to make the structure wheelchair-accessible and adhere to other state and federal guidelines.

“L’Arche is about quality of life,” said Laura Wells, co-president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. “We’re about being a sign of what the whole world — society — could be like if we accepted people’s disabilities.

“All of us have disabilities,” said Wells, who spent a year at a L’Arche home in Scotland after graduating from Duke University. “Some are just more apparent than others.”

That doesn’t mean core residents are helpless.

As the chili bubbled, Moore flopped down in an overstuffed chair in the home’s living room. He grinned at Hudson, who’d challenged him to a game of pool. Moore, 27, is a regular at Twain’s, a downtown Decatur emporium of brews and billiards. He knows his way around a table. Hudson is legally blind.

“OK,” Moore said. “Bring it on.”

Hudson snorted. “We’ll have a showdown!”

Showdowns of a different sort — squabbling, bickering, the sort of finger-pointing that occurs when people live together — so far haven’t happened. But when they do, said Ellet, the six will work out their differences.

“There are always going to be growing pains,” said Ellet, leaving her chili for a few moments.

“John and Terry and Lara are not clients,” she continued, using a popular word used to describe group-home residents. “They’re friends. They’re family.”

A family that expands every fourth Saturday of the month for social gatherings. People with disabilities and others meet with L’Arche residents at area churches to spend time together, affirming their shared humanity.

Swenson, 36, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, considers her housemates friends, in spite of pointed political differences. (She backed Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election.) Swenson, who came to L’Arche from a larger facility, appreciates the serenity she’s found at her new home.

“It’s not so loud here,” she said.

Hochschild is the quiet guy of the bunch. He’s 52, originally from Cleveland, and likes to play catch with anyone who has a baseball glove. Hochschild, who has limited mental capacities, was living with family members before coming to L’Arche.

Does he like L’Arche? Hochschild smiled, looked at his feet and nodded.

The kitchen was steamy, the chili ready. Ellet and Hudson reached for bowls and silverware while others cleared a round oak table in the dining room. They laid out the chili, then placed bowls of salad in front of each chair. Ellet put various bottles of salad dressing on the table’s Lazy Susan. The room’s picture window framed a gray day, ringed by golden leaves and getting darker by the moment.

They all sat.

“This is a perfect meal!” Moore said.

They all held hands.

“For food and fellowship, God, we give you praise,” Ellet prayed.

They all answered:


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