L’Arche London’s Gathering Place
One example of the increased impact L’Arche communities are having across Canada
On a lovely midsummer’s morning, Bonjour Café is buzzing. Like every successful café, it’s a relaxed yet elegant space with artwork by local artists, indulgent treats, and good coffee. The servers are friendly and attentive. This café, open on Thursday mornings, also serves a social purpose. It’s a space of welcome created by the L’Arche London community for their neighbours in Lambeth and the wider community of London, Ontario.
“The Gathering Place is important to me because all of my friends are there. It has a big kitchen and Joslyn is going to train all of us as to how to use the equipment in it.” – Gloria
Bonjour Café is the brainchild of Melissa, a member of the L’Arche London community. “I wanted to have my own coffee shop.” She’s one of several people, with and without intellectual disabilities, who do a variety of jobs at the café. For Melissa, it’s a solid employment experience. “Hopefully, I can get a job where I can be a cashier... That’s my dream.”
The collective spirit is part of what makes the café special. Team members are proud of their work, help each other succeed, and enjoy serving their customers. Their ‘regulars’ include the community’s many friends and supporters who invite guests to discover this welcoming space. Then, there are the neighbours curious about what’s going on in this beautiful new building on Colonel Talbot Road, the village main street.
Bonjour Café became a reality through the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through their Seed funding program. It’s just a part of what’s happening in L’Arche London’s new community inclusion hub, the Gathering Place, yet it represents many aspects of its success and challenges:
- The collective commitment of a wide range of members, supporters, donors, volunteers, neighbours, and civic leaders;
- Listening to the voices of all, especially persons overlooked in our busy world, helping them name and pursue their goals, and welcoming their contributions;
- Welcoming a diverse group of people, building connections and capabilities that radiate out into the broader community.
The road to the Gathering Place
L’Arche London’s first home opened 20 years ago, the fruit of the hard work of a small group of dedicated people with a dream. Over the years, the community grew to include three homes and a day program. This growth was only possible because of the support and commitment of community and board members, family, friends, donors, government funders, and a number of community partners.
“If the heart is beating, then we got rhythm, and we can share that in the drumming circle.” – Laurel
From the beginning, L’Arche London focused on building connections in the broader community. Jean Vanier gave public talks in London in 1999 and 2006 that shared the L’Arche vision with a wider audience. An annual Banquet began in 2008, gathering a diverse group of Londoners to share a meal, art, music, and inspiration. Outreach has also included monthly potlucks, an annual picnic, art shows, retreat days, prayer services, public talks, and university and seminary courses. Members participate in and contribute to many events in the broader community – even decorating the mayor’s Christmas tree.
The Retired Teachers of Ontario present Laurel and Jim a cheque from a grant to support the Monday Morning Music Club.
The Monday Morning Music Club began in 2000. It’s a joyful place that celebrates the unique voice of each person. Because the club is free of charge, a wide range of individuals supported by other agencies or their families tried it out. Today, 120 people regularly come together to make music with their friends. The clubs tee shirt says it all, “Ask me why I love Monday mornings!”
A new dream and a wider circle of dedicated people
“As the provision of programs and services continues to expand at the Gathering Place, there will be hundreds of individuals with intellectual disabilities who will be the beneficiaries of your generosity. This investment of today will pay dividends for years to come!” – Arthur and Sonia Labatt, Capital Campaign Honourary Chairs
The dream for the London Gathering Place began in the hearts and minds of several people. “Imagine if we had a fully accessible space where everyone feels welcome and included.” “Imagine what activities we could offer if we didn’t need to move equipment each day.” “Imagine if L’Arche had a more visible presence, a space to welcome and support more people, and build more connections in the wider community.”
Inspired by a generous legacy gift and support from a L’Arche Canada National Grant, a $2.5 million Capital Campaign was launched in 2013. Through the hard work of volunteers, professionals, and community members, and the support of hundreds of donors, construction on the 8000 square foot facility began in 2016. On a beautiful day in September 2017, representatives of three levels of government joined L’Arche to celebrate the Grand Opening of the Gathering Place.
New connections and opportunities
“My daughter from the time we arrived at the music club to the end was smiling and greatly enjoying the participation of the L’Arche individuals. My sister believes as I do that we were guided by our Guardian Angel to this wonderful place.” – Joe
The new Gathering Place is a beautiful, accessible space that allows L’Arche London to offer opportunities to more people. When Joseph began facing health issues, he knew he had to widen his daughter Joelle’s circle of support. A chance encounter led them to L’Arche. Joelle soon made friends and found activities she enjoys.
Natalie was already working at Starbucks when she and her mother Janet, who runs the Lambeth Gardens centre, discovered the Bonjour Café. They bring friends to enjoy the warm atmosphere. Janet encouraged Natalie to apply for a job at the café. Natalie enjoys the company of her co-workers and takes pride in serving her customers.
We don’t have room to share stories of all the new life, activities, and connections taking place at the Gathering Place – still in its first year! Here are a few highlights:
- Through a L’Arche Canada Growth Grant, an Arts Educator is helping individuals explore their creativity in a wide range of media. With students from Jean Vanier Elementary School, L’Arche artists collaborated on In the Image of God... I Belong, celebrating the beauty, similarities, and differences that we share.
- The Seniors Drumming Circle, made possible through a New Horizons for Seniors grant, welcomes seniors of all abilities including neighbours and long-term volunteers.
- L’Arche London is partnering with Participation House Support Services, Hutton House, and the London Arts Council in Healing through the Arts funded by an Investing In Justice grant. This program honours the resiliency and spirit of institutional survivors through six-week “open studios” where participants create art drawn from their stories in an atmosphere of encouragement and freedom of expression.
- A new Westminster College Foundation grant is supporting a bi-weekly L’Arche London “open mic” Coffee House.
- The Gathering Place property is a significant community asset with a corner garden provided by the Lambeth Horticultural Society, accessible garden beds built by a volunteer with seedlings provided by the Civic Garden Society, and a nature trail supported by TD Friends of the Environment, the City of London, and the Upper Thames Valley Conservation Authority.
- In the fully equipped Snoezelen room, participants with sensory, cognitive, and physical disabilities engage in therapeutic sensory experiences.
- Other activities include drama, volunteering, adaptive cooking classes, skill and volunteer development, and a wellness centre for physical care and therapy.
- Monthly potlucks, bi-weekly ecumenical worship services, and special events welcome more people to connect with the L’Arche community.
Renewing the vision and experience of L’Arche for the long-term
The Gathering Place is a hub of new activity, connections, and outreach, yet there is a calm at the centre. It’s nourished by a spirit of presence, – respect, and care for each person, the community, and the earth. This balance – between action and mindfulness, between extending the mission and nurturing the spirit of L’Arche, is essential.
“Before this building was erected, I didn’t even know what L’Arche was all about... people care and enjoy each other’s company.” – Janet
In the next year, L’Arche London will evaluate the Gathering Place. As always, they will listen to all voices, discerning where the community is called to grow. The goal is to continue to have a real impact in the lives of more people while remaining faithful to the vision of L’Arche for years to come.
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