L’Arche community set to open in Merchantville

MERCHANTVILLE — The rooms are bare and the walls need paint, but in the three-floor, 19th century Victorian home on Maple Avenue here, hope resides.

The goal is for the first L’Arche community, comprising those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their assistants, will come together here where they will share meals and engage in fellowship.

The Merchantville home will become the first L’Arche community in the state of New Jersey, joining 17 communities in the United States, and the 140 communities in 36 other countries.

The roots of L’Arche trace back to 1964, when Jean Vanierbought a small, run-down home in Trosly-Breuil, France and invited two men with intellectual disabilities to come and live with him, to create a loving atmosphere centered on the Gospel.

Coming from the French word for “ark” — as in Noah’s Ark, a symbol of hope — L’Arche has become a worldwide mission, dedicated to making known the gifts of those with developmental disabilities; to fostering a community that responds to the changing needs of its members, while being faithful to its core values; and to creating a better society.

In 1997, Vanier was given the International Paul VI Award by Pope John Paul II, who called L’Arche a “providential seed of the civilization of love.”

The communities that followed the first home are united by the same vision, and the spirit of welcoming, sharing, and simplicity that Vanier envisioned.

L’Arche’s movement into New Jersey began 10 years ago, after a group of parents became concerned about the futures of their children with developmental disabilities.

The Friends of L’Arche New Jersey began and once the Merchantville house, which was purchased last August, opens, it will officially become a L’Arche community.

The home, which will house four adults with developmental disabilities (“core members”), and four assistants, will foster “relationships of mutuality, where (community members) are loved, and able to grow,” said Matt Rhodes, the Community Leader of Friends of L’Arche New Jersey.

“The home is a shelter in the chaos,” he said.

Each resident will have his or her own room, and there will be a hospitality room for guests.

During the day, core members will attend a day program or work at their jobs. Afternoons and evenings will be filled with the simple aspects of daily life, such as grocery shopping, taking trips, preparing meals, and enjoying one another’s company. In the evening, the core members and assistants will share dinner together.

The need is great in the state of New Jersey for homes for those with developmental disabilities. Some 3,000 of these individuals currently live in state-run institutions or developmental centers. Additionally, there are more than 10,000 individuals with developmental disabilities on the waiting list to receive a placement in a group home.

The L’Arche Merchantville community will not only be the first of its kind in New Jersey, but the first in the Delaware Valley, and the first between D.C. and Boston. Friends of L’Arche NJ seeks to expand and open several more homes in the next decade.

“The key is building relationships, with those in the home, God and community,” said Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ, on the board of Friends of L’Arche New Jersey and the Camden Diocesan co-director of Ministry With the Deaf and Persons with Disabilities, adding that the home is “faith-and-family based.”

A main hope for the core members is that “this will be their home for life,” says Rhodes.

Currently, funds are being raised for the renovation of the Merchantville home, and the purchase and renovation of additional homes.

For more information go to www.friendsoflarchenj.org or e-mail larchenj@gmail.com

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