Jeff Reichelt hooted and pumped his fist after he won $325 in play money in the board game Payday and sold a house for a $1,000 commission.
If it was real money, he said, he’d buy ice cream for everyone.
It was a relaxing late afternoon at Sunrise House in Maplewood, one of three L’Arche community homes here, in which nondisabled and disabled residents live together.
Jeff, who works at a sheltered workshop, also plays softball and basketball with St. Louis Arc, a support program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He once played Jesus in a skit about the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan.
He and one of his buddies, Erik Strange, an assistant at the house, hung out in the dining room of Sunrise House, recalling a regional gathering of L’Arche USA in Clinton, Iowa, they attended. Jeff said he had fun eating pizza on a boat and attending a dance party with his friend.
Work of the heart
Erik may never have experienced Jeff’s enthusiasm for life, joined the Catholic Church or met his wife if it weren’t for a podcast. When Erik’s enlistment in the U.S. Army was up, he most likely was headed to graduate school. But one night, Erik was on the beach in North Myrtle Beach, N.C., when he heard an interview with Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche.
“I never heard of L’Arche or worked with people with disabilities, but there was this commanding tenderness of this man who was a veteran as well and was talking about this work of the heart that was dwelling inside me and never had a chance to breathe,” Erik recalled.
He also was attracted to L’Arche after seeing the 1950s movie, “The Flowers of St. Francis.” Seeing the way St. Francis hugged a leper — love toward another person no matter who they are or what they look like — gave him the sense of Jesus in action and shifted his attitude. “It moved me to come here,” he said.
Erik visited for a week to experience the community living, then went on a retreat with the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Kansas to discern his decision on whether to become a live-in assistant, which affirmed that choice.
During orientation, he met Kelly Roth, an occupational therapist who was working at L’Arche part-time. They wore the same type of clothing — a red-and-blue plaid shirt, gray V-neck undershirt, dark blue jeans and dark brown boots — and busted out in laughter. Later, they began dating and married May 11 at the Catholic Student Center with one L’Arche core member as a groomsman and another as an usher. Disabled residents at L’Arche are called core members.
Erik’s interest in the Catholic faith began while attending Mass with core members and seeing their enjoyment and sense of community. While dating, he and Kelly attended the Washington University Catholic Student Center. Erik, who had been looking for the right spiritual fit, entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at the student center, and Kelly, a lifelong Catholic, signed up to share the experience.
Paula Kilcoyne, executive director and community leader of L’Arche St. Louis, cited “the gift that people with a disability have in forming authentic relationships and the difference that can make in the life of a young person.”
L’Arche breaks down barriers. “We are accepting of people’s different abilities and live together, learning about forgiveness, communication and more,” Kilcoyne said. “L’Arche says we all know what it’s like to be vulnerable, to feel like we’re not included. So let’s try to make places where we can be included, be supported to be our best self, share our differences together and do it harmoniously.”
College students live as assistants in the home for summer or a year after graduation as an internship, “and it’s radical for them to have this friendship with somebody who just loves them for who they are,” Kilcoyne said.
A family dinner is a L’Arche evening ritual. They come together, prepare the meal, spend time around the table, then go to the living room for reflection and prayer time, with lots of singing and recognition.
Kilcoyne, a parishioner at Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves, planned to spend a summer with the Daybreak community in Toronto 31 years ago and was hooked, staying 25 years before returning to St. Louis. She also joined the original community in France and lived in a L’Arche community in Kolkata, India.
“I had moments of adoration, the practice of doing the morning Office, things about the Catholic faith I was born with, but it deepened for me in L’Arche because we were living in community and those of us who were Catholic prayed in those ways,” Kilcoyne said.
Jordan Lott, a core member at L’Arche’s Joyful House in Maplewood, beamed when she saw live-in assistant Jess Richmeyer enter the room. They do a special fist bump that ends by making a “J” with their finger and thumb. Jordan communicates with help of a voice-enabled tablet but expresses happiness and love for her friend through her body language.
They held hands while Jess read books to Jordan. They wrapped their arms around themselves in a hug, and Jordan hugged her book in response to a story that mentioned a boy who was sad.
Jess, a 24-year-old graduate of Ursuline Academy in St. Louis and Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., said the residents share each other’s joys and frustrations in a place of laughter, silliness, support and encouragement. “We want to help each other any way we can,” she said. “It’s a special place, one where you come as you are.”
After college, Jess spent a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and became acquainted with L’Arche, attending its community events. She came back to St. Louis to be a live-in assistant in August of 2018. “I like its open spirituality … That’s the beauty of Jean Vanier (the founder),” Jess said.
L’Arche’s main focus is that everyone is worthy of being loved, Jess said. Her favorite time is dinnertime when they ask each other about their day. No one is on their phone.
Reading another book, Jess asked Jordan if she’d ever been breathless. “Maybe from laughing too much,” Jess said before Jordan could answer.
Isabella Davila, an upstate New York native who is a postulant with the Daughters of Charity, has a degree in social work but hadn’t worked with people with developmental disabilities until coming to L’Arche. She was uncomfortable at first. “I was unwilling to explore it until God presented that (opportunity) to me,” Isabella said.
After joining the Vincentian Service Corps in St. Louis for a year, Isabella was placed at L’Arche. She stayed on another year while in her postulancy.
“L’Arche was actually my last choice,” Isabella said.
But she figured that’s where she was being called. And now, she said, “Oh my gosh, I love L’Arche. It brought out so much more in me than I ever knew I had. L’Arche gave me the faith to be myself. I laughed harder, danced sillier and loved deeper all because of L’Arche.”
She also has a deeper connection with God because of her experience. “I came to see God in people who I hadn’t seen God in before. I came to find God in the simplicity, joy and transparent gifts that adults with developmental disabilities carry.”
Isabella feels that the core members of L’Arche are close to God’s heart. They brought a peace and joy that she had been seeking. “Little did I know that by listening to God’s call, I’d be where I needed to be.”
Erik agreed with that sentiment. L’Arche served as practice for the love he brought into his marriage, he said. “Because L’Arche exists there’s that much more love in the world. And we all get to take it with us the rest of our lives.”
More about L’Arche
Faith and Light is the sister community to L’Arche. Members from the St. Louis community who support L’Arche meet monthly to pray and have fellowship.
L’Arche also has a family support program, visiting homes and providing skills and assistance for families with a developmentally disabled member. A family can take a break and attend a L’Arche event.
WAYS TO HELP
• Serve as board members, committee members and other volunteers
• Make donations
• Attend events, including community nights, an annual square dance, ice cream social, Valentine’s Day dance, breakfast at the zoo and more
• Become an assistant
For information, visit www.larchestlouis.org, email [email protected]
or call (314) 405-8025. Contributions may be sent to L’Arche St. Louis, 2934 Marshall Ave., St. Louis, MO 63143.