Steve Washek has been named Deputy Director for L’Arche USA, which has twenty communities across the country where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers. In this newly created role, Steve will provide oversight for the organization’s strategic plan, including the addition of several new communities by 2020.
“Steve brings manifold experience in both administration and pastoral care that will make him invaluable as we grow,” Tina Bovermann, National Leader/Executive Director for L’Arche USA, said. Steve will join L’Arche USA’s leadership team March 28.
At the heart of L’Arche are adults who have intellectual disabilities—known as “core members”—and the relationships that arise from a shared life. During Steve’s first encounter with L’Arche as a college student more than thirty-five years ago he saw this shared life in action. Fr. George Strohmeyer, co-founder of L’Arche Erie, invited him to dinner. They served him hot dogs, which the household affectionately called “tube steaks,” and allowed him to be privy to a conversation he’ll never forget.
“Core members spoke of the difficulties they had that week and how they got angry with each other,” Steve said. Then, the core members asked each other for forgiveness and prayed together. “I had never experienced such authentic relationships before.”
The experience was so profound that he left his studies and moved into L’Arche. Steve would spend the next nineteen years there, serving as a house leader for thirteen years and then as community leader/executive director for six years. In the midst of living and working in L’Arche he returned to Gannon University to complete a degree in social work and certificate in gerontology. And, within his first two years in L’Arche, Steve met and married his wife, Vicki.
L’Arche also had an enormous impact on Steve’s faith. He said he experienced God in many new ways, including walking with someone in death and experiencing the joy of core members as they were moved by music and liturgy. L’Arche members are encouraged to explore their faith journey, and for Steve that meant making the decision to join the Catholic Church.
After leaving the role of community leader, the next step in his faith was to become a permanent deacon (in the Catholic Church, this is a person who is ordained for ministry and service to others but is not a priest). He was assigned to campus ministry both at Gannon University and for the Diocese of Erie. During his fifteen year tenure as director of campus ministry he also earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies and became a certified campus minister through Catholic Campus Ministry Association.
“My motivation is to help people achieve their fullest potential and to discover who God has called them to be,” he said. “We become who God has called us to be by being in relationship with one another.”
For Steve, the gift L’Arche offers is those very relationships. One pivotal friendship for him is with Leroy Hammond, who has been a member of L’Arche Erie for forty years. Leroy had lived in his own apartment for many years, but when he needed more daily support he moved back into one of the L’Arche homes. Like most people would, he found this loss of independence frustrating.
“One evening Leroy called our home in tears, saying he was going to move back into his own apartment,” Steve said. They talked for a while, and after they hung up Steve commented to Vicki that Leroy was a person he could share life with.
And so, Leroy joined the Washek household in 2014. “We have now lived together for two years,” Steve said, “and Leroy has definitely become part of our extended family.”
Leroy also became a regular on Gannon University’s campus. His presence re-emphasized to Steve how important it is for young adults to interact with L’Arche core members, and how much Steve himself was longing to be part of L’Arche on a day-to-day basis again.
Steve and Vicki have three adult children and five grandsons who visit frequently. In addition to spending time with his family, Steve enjoys walking their Golden Retriever, Bailey, playing piano, and landscaping their yard. Since 2009, he and Vicki have served as spiritual directors in the Erie Diocese deaconate program, and for the past two years Leroy has joined them to teach a class once a month.
—Bethany Keener, L’Arche USA Communications Manager
L’Arche USA is part of an international federation of L’Arche communities that seeks to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships. There are 149 L’Arche communities and 20 projects in 39 countries where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers, including 20 communities in the United States.
In 2015, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize, which is valued at $1.7 million and honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Vanier believes that those who have intellectual disabilities, when fully welcomed in society, can be sources of healing, joy, unity, and peace in our world.