by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — Most families are the product of biology — of bloodlines.
A lucky few are the product of love.
Such is the case with the L’Arche Heartland family in Overland Park.
No one in this family is related biologically. But they do all share a common bond.
They all live according to the tenets of Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian, who founded L’Arche International.
L’Arche is a network of homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities and their live-in assistants.
Vanier died this past May at the age of 90. But his work lives on.
“Our community life is beautiful and intense,” Vanier often explained, “a source of life for everyone.
“People with a disability experience a real transformation and discover confidence in themselves; they discover their capacity to make choices, and also find a certain liberty and, above all, their dignity as human beings.”
A distinct difference
Vanier’s legacy came to Overland Park in 1987 as part of the L’Arche Heartland chapter.
And for anyone who thinks this is just another “group home” for people with intellectual disabilities, there’s a big difference. This home delivers physical, practical and emotional support with a hefty side of spirituality.
The language is distinct, too. Instead of saying “residents,” L’Arche refers to individuals as core members. And live-in assistants are just that — not caretakers.
Mark Lepper has been a L’Arche Heartland live-in assistant since 2011. He engages and interacts easily with the core members who live together — some of whom have autism and Down syndrome.
“It’s more than a job, it’s a way of living” Lepper said. “We’re people who share life together.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised and delighted to find out that we have a piece of Jean Vanier’s legacy here in Kansas. Each of us can shine. People with disabilities have gifts to share.”
In fact, L’Arche Heartland focuses on relationships and recognizes that every individual, regardless of his or her ability, has much to offer.
Through daily living, core members and assistants work to discover and share these gifts with the broader community of Johnson County, while fostering relationships with one another and creating a place of belonging for people of all abilities.
A home for the soul
L’Arche Heartland has five Overland Park homes with 17 core members and six live-in assistants. Core members and assistants contribute to the rhythm and life of the home: planning menus together, shopping, preparing meals, performing household chores, and enjoying leisure activities like trips to the zoo, farmers’ markets or a Royals game.
All five of the homes meet regularly to share a meal and attend a community prayer service.
L’Arche Heartland community leader Jamie Henderson says the homes are “vibrant places full of laughter, music and prayer.”
“Jean Vanier is our leader. He challenged people to grow spiritually, to find one’s self and to live a pure life with others,” Henderson said.
Living life to the fullest is exactly what core members do.
Lance Fannin, 34, has been living in a L’Arche Heartland home since 2004. He fills his free time with trips to vintage stores and loves to cook. Chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese are his favorites, but he enjoys nights of pizza-making as a group.
A home with personality
Lance is a seasonal employee at a fireworks stand in Grandview, Missouri, and participates in L’Arche’s day program from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The day program, Green Express Studio, teaches employment skills and life skills and pursues opportunities to care for the environment. Green Express Studio has formed partnerships with other businesses in Johnson County for core members to collect the businesses’ aluminum, plastic and paper recycling.
The recycled materials are then sorted and prepared for the recycling center. All revenue generated from the program is shared among the core members who participate.
“These business partners are helping us move toward realizing the vision of a paid employment option for the persons in our day service,” Henderson said.
The program encourages volunteerism as well, including Meals on Wheels, animal shelters, community centers and food banks.
Sarah Engelmann, 31, has been living in the L’Arche community since 2014, but attended the day program for several years before that. Outside of her devotion to Starbucks coffee, she is active in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas iCare Masses held monthly at Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park.
Sarah is among the leaders of the music during Mass.
Alex Lind, 34, can’t pass up a night of barbecue when all the core members from each of the five homes gather. Alex likes action movies and concerts. He proudly boasts of cleaning his room every day and loading the dishwasher.
Like all families, there is conflict from time to time. However, the L’Arche community works together to resolve conflicts. Core members rarely change locations, unless it’s necessary to meet their various needs.
In general, core member housemates are matched according to their needs.
The next 30 years
Parents of core members are active in fundraisers to defray the costs encountered by L’Arche Heartland. In addition to financial contributions, some groups and individuals volunteer to paint or repair the homes. L’Arche Heartland also welcomes donations of newer furniture and dinners for its group meals.
The program would like to add to its live-in assistants, too. Assistants receive a salary, room, board and insurance. They work five days a week, staggering their schedules so that there is always an assistant in the homes.
More importantly, according to Lepper, L’Arche Heartland welcomes friendships with the local community.
“Our members enjoy forming bonds with the people in our community, so we would encourage others to get involved, even if it’s coming by to have dinner with us,” Lepper said.