L’Arche Plans to Open in Colorado

Sarah Reichhardt rollderblades while pushing a friend in his wheelchair during her time at L'Arche Tahoma Hope in Tacoma, Washington.

Sarah Reichhardt rollerblades while pushing a friend in his wheelchair during her time at L’Arche Tahoma Hope in Tacoma, Washington.

Community to include sustainable homes and farm where adults with and without intellectual disabilities live and work as peers

When Sarah Reichhardt ended her time at L’Arche Tahoma Hope in Tacoma, Washington, she vowed to hold onto the values she’d learned while there—living simply, loving and serving unconditionally, and embracing her own vulnerability.

This was the norm in L’Arche, whose nineteen communities in the United States provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers, create inclusive communities of faith and friendship, and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. At the heart of L’Arche are the adults who have intellectual disabilities—known as “core members”—and the relationships that arise from a shared life.

Nearly twenty years went by since Sarah left L’Arche, but then a chance encounter at the grocery store suddenly brought L’Arche back into her life in a new and unexpected way. Her mother was shopping when she ran in to Jennifer Pfiester, a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. As they caught up, Jennifer explained that she’d been keeping busy by trying to start a L’Arche community in Colorado.

When Sarah found out, “It was a don’t walk, don’t run—leap!” moment.

“How could I not jump at the chance to help create true home where each individual’s gifts are celebrated, to offer respite and a sense of peace about the future for the loved ones of these individuals, and an opportunity to grow and serve for other community members?” she said.

She wasted no time in contacting Jennifer, who is the board president of Friends of L’Arche Ft. Collins. She joined Jennifer and Kush Desai, board vice president, as the treasurer of the fledgling organization.

“Starting a new L’Arche community in Colorado begins with the obvious goal of providing a choice for housing that is not yet available in this area,” Sarah said. “It extends far beyond—into providing a sign of hope and beacon of light for the greater community.”

The vision for L’Arche in Colorado includes several homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities will live together, along with a farm where members could grow some of their own food, fostering a healthy and meaningful life between both people and the environment. With proximity to Colorado State University, Happy Heart Farm, public transportation, and the city’s extensive park and trail system, Sarah said the group envisions integration and partnerships that the greater community will be able to “embrace wholeheartedly.”

Cooperation with Happy Heart Farm will keep the community close to nature, offer opportunity for meaningful employment, and foster the community goal for sustainable living. L’Arche in Colorado aspires to be a sustainable community. Through green building, employing methods to reduce energy consumption, and growing some of its own food, the community will aim to reduce their environmental footprint to foster a healthy and meaningful life now and for future generations.

This is not a new model for L’Arche. The community in Tacoma, Washington, where Sarah first served as an assistant providing daily support to the core members, has run a farm and garden since 1982. It provides employment for people who have intellectual disabilities and a collaborative setting in which people with a diversity of gifts and abilities work toward common goals.

It’s much-needed in Colorado. According to United Cerebral Palsy’s 2015 Case for Inclusion report, nearly four thousand people are on waiting lists for residential support and only about 21 percent of people with intellectual disabilities are in supported or competitive employment. While Colorado is ranked sixth in the nation for how State Medicaid programs serve Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), the need is still staggering. While L’Arche alone cannot meet the all the demand for housing and employment, it does aim to inspire other providers and society as a whole to see those who have intellectual disabilities as gifted and valued people with something to offer.

The Friends of L’Arche Ft. Collins leadership team hopes to move to the next phase of planning as early as next year.

Joan Winchester, Regional Leader for L’Arche USA’s western region, oversees this budding community. She said the group has developed a diverse board and leadership team that is fully dedicated and motivated to founding L’Arche in response to the need in Colorado.

“I’m excited to accompany them in the process of founding and look forward to the day we welcome our first core persons in Ft. Collins,” Joan said.

L’Arche could come to Colorado as early as next year, but the current team will need additional support to move that quickly. In addition to financial backing, they’re looking for people to join them who have expertise in the areas of leadership, green construction, sustainable living, grant writing, legal counsel, accounting, event planning, and medical or social/human services. The team welcomes anyone who is interested in joining their efforts, whether they have these skills to offer or simply want to be part of building this type of community.

To learn more about how you can support Friends of L’Arche Ft. Collins, visit their website: friendsoflarchefc.org.

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 19 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.

—Bethany Keener