A Semester of the Heart – Learning and Growing Alongside Adults With Developmental Disabilities

Image This blog post first appeared on: http://blog.adnetonline.org/.  Please check out ADNET online for writings by other people who are involved in disability ministry and to see some additional blog posts I have written and some pictures of my community!

In another life I would be frantically submitting last minute papers, making preparations for how to spend my all too short Christmas vacation, and selecting which courses to take next semester.  In another life I would be one year closer to my PhD, working two jobs, and taking 5 courses.  There’s also the possibility that in another life I would be easily raking in twice as much as my salary is now, at a job much more prestigious, and doing something a lot closer to my field.

Instead, I sit here typing this during my 2 hour break.  I have just gotten back from accompanying a 32 year old to see Santa and get his picture taken with him at the mall.  I have gone Christmas shopping for some members of the house, and we are all frantically getting ready for our turkey dinner and gift exchange this evening.

This is L’Arche.  This has become my life and for the next 8 months this is the community I will remain a part of.  6 months ago I joined the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill (just a bit North of Toronto).  Joining L’Arche has at once been the most life altering, time consuming, and foolish (according to the world’s view) decision I have ever made.  Yet, it has also been the most fulfilling, life-giving, and radical decisions I have made.

When I first began my work at L’Arche many people tried to discourage me from pursuing my interest in being involved in a full-time ministry for people with developmental disabilities.  “You’re a well-educated woman, why don’t you try to pursue something a little closer to your field?” “Working with those people takes lots of patience… I can’t really see you in that field.  You’d get bored too quickly”.  “Why don’t you leave that type of work for people who are actually trained?” These all too quickly because the road blocks which accompanied my already growing fear of the unknown. The truth is that from the moment I applied to L’Arche (1 year before actually joining the community) I was at once exhilarated and terrified.  There was not a moment in my whole discernment process when I was confident in what I was doing, yet it is for that very reason that L’Arche held my fascination so much.  It remains much the same way today.  After almost six months of living and working alongside of adults with developmental disabilities there are still days that terrify me.  There are still days when I fear the unknown, do not know how to react to a difficult or unpleasant situation, or lack confidence in my skill set.  Yet the core members (residents) have truly been the best teachers and have exercised much patience and grace as they have taught me what it means to interact with them and what it means to truly have a deeply rooted relationship. 

Going to L’Arche was at once the wisest and most foolish decisions that I have ever made.  It was foolish by the world’s standards for sure.  I’m not a qualified personal service worker or developmental social worker.  I’ve never even volunteered with people who have developmental disabilities yet alone had a deep relationship with anyone other than able bodied people.  The most I could offer was my few months as a high school co-op student and my one semester placement at Tyndale University working with seniors who have Alzheimer’s.  I truly thought people with developmental disabilities would not be much different…boy was I wrong!  All at once I was thrown into L’Arche where not only did I get to work with people who have Down Syndrome but who have Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s!  Not only did I get to form friendships with people who have cerebral palsy but cerebral palsy and depression!  These dual diagnoses are definitely not easy to tackle, but it is because I have formed friendships with these core members that I have developed more compassion, a gentler spirit, and a greater sense of confidence in who I am as a person and what God can call me to do!

L’Arche was also the wisest decision I have ever made.  Being a full time student for the past 18 years of my life has really taken its toll on me.  As a result I became disinterested in my studies and truly lost the passion I once started off with.  Being at L’Arche has allowed me a necessary break from my studies and given me ample opportunity to learn other key skills which are often excluded from the academic curriculum.  Some of these skills include: how to cook a nutritious meal (believe me, I had no idea how to cook before I came to Daybreak!), how to find a balance between introversion and extroversion, how to discover myself as a person, and how to become in touch with my emotions.

These lessons did not come overnight and in many cases I am still growing and maturing in many of these areas.  I just had a major kitchen disaster last night!!  Yet, as I live alongside a forgiving and loving family who laughs at my mistakes, doesn’t hold grudges, and loves unconditionally, I get a glimpse of what it truly means to be a whole person even in my brokenness.  I begin to understand more of Christ’s love for me.  I begin to understand what it means to be a servant and to wash each other’s feet (often literally in my job!).

I’m reminded often of the Bible verse that says, “God chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise.”  Whom the world deems as useless to society, I have begun to see immeasurable  richness in.  Whom society deems to be a burden, I have seen take on my burdens and struggles – truly being empathetic and listening to me.  Whom society tries to stay far away from I have seen embrace me as their sister – faults and all – and they don’t want to change me because when I am broken as they are than we are more able to connect.

Yes, I took a year off… and yes, in another life I would be receiving my report card right now and tallying up all the As and Bs.  I would be trying to see what my GPA looks like and if it would get me into grad school.  Instead I’ve received a different report card.  Not one of percentages and scores, but one of love, unconditional acceptance, and grace.  A report card which isn’t based on merit but on who I am as a person.  A report card which says, “Deborah you’re worth it.  You’re as much as you put into the job and so much more!”

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