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A Light Ahead – L’Arche London

The social distancing caused by the pandemic has been trying. Thankfully, aside from those who have donated their time, money and ingenuity to help L’Arche, there are the health care workers, grocery store clerks and all those on the front line who are helping the L’Arche community get through this crisis. With their help, it won’t be long until the Gathering Place opens again and the community starts making new memories.

Members of L'Arche London at their Gathering Place

Imagine starting your Monday morning by gathering with friends and loved ones to sing, or celebrating Thursday with a brownie in the morning and a drum circle in the afternoon. For residents of London, Ontario, these were once wondrous realities that now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, have become only memories.

L’Arche London’s magnificent, eight-thousand square foot Gathering Place opened in September 2017. From the outside, the multi-use building looks like a modern church. But, sitting in the vast community room and looking up at the high ceilings, one feels like they’re in a cathedral.

The programming is as impressive as the structure. There are numerous music, art and exercise classes, performances and therapeutic practices, plus a library, art gallery and market. The best part of the Gathering Place is that it’s used by people of all abilities. At the Monday Morning Music Club, for instance, as many as one-hundred and fifty people of all backgrounds gather together in what becomes an incredible cultural exchange for all. Easily the second best part of the Gathering Place is the infamous wakeup brownie — made with chocolate, coffee and love — that can only be found Thursday mornings at the Gathering Place’s Bonjour Cafe.

The Bonjour Cafe was the brainchild of Core Member Melissa Lavalle. Born with a gift for hospitality, she always dreamed of owning her own coffee shop. L’Arche and the grants it was able to obtain made the coffee shop financially possible, then hard-working Core Members and volunteers, who spent their Wednesdays baking in time for the Thursday morning rush, made the cafe something really special. The cafe’s offerings are so delicious that Huron University ordered over thirty trays of goodies for an event. The Bonjour Cafe has ambitions to build their catering clientele and sell their baked goods in stores. But right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, all plans for the Bonjour Cafe, and the Gathering Place as a whole, have been put on hold.

Current connections have remained strong. This crisis has even helped some old friends reconnect. L’Arche London’s assistants and house leaders, who have gone on to opportunities beyond Southern Ontario, have been able to connect with their old houses through Zoom.

With the exception of a lightly staffed administrative office, the Gathering Place has remained closed throughout April. Some programming has been cancelled, such as the weekly drum circle and book lending. However, L’Arche London, ever resilient, has been able to keep many programs alive for the people with intellectual disabilities that they support by utilizing Zoom. They’ve maintained Tuesday group worship using the video conferencing service. While each house is on lockdown, art and music teachers lead their classes online and use their creativity to make the best of it. When an art teacher suggested a project using clay, which some houses had in short supply, the teacher taught their dedicated students how to make their own clay.

The social distancing caused by the pandemic has nonetheless been trying. People with intellectual disabilities are split among three different houses. The friends they made from other houses, so easily while at the Gathering Place, are off in their own lockdowns. Harder still is that, due to logistics, the larger London community is deprived of all programming and the cultural exchange that comes with it. The Monday Music Club and Wednesday Coffee Shop music nights went digital and received sixty-five and fifty-six attendees respectively in one week in April but those two programs are the only ones currently open to all of London.

Yet, residents of London have remained connected to L’Arche by adapting their weekly habits. Instead of going to the Gathering Place’s walking club, volunteers stroll to their supermarket and deliver groceries to the L’Arche houses on lockdown. Instead of weekly art classes, volunteers hone their crafting skills by making non-medical masks. Some, who received refunds when paid events were cancelled, put their money towards pizza dinners for the L’Arche homes. L’Arche has been blessed with many volunteers offering assistance.

Current connections have remained strong. This crisis has even helped some old friends reconnect. L’Arche London’s assistants and house leaders, who have gone on to opportunities beyond Southern Ontario, have been able to connect with their old houses through Zoom. Core Members have been delighted to go online for a music night and see old friends, who now live in Alberta, Nova Scotia and as far away as New Zealand!

Of course, these are only silver linings in a pandemic that everyone hopes will end soon. Nothing quite compares to bonds and exchanges had at the Gathering Place.

Thankfully, aside from those who have donated their time, money and ingenuity to help L’Arche, there are the health care workers, grocery store clerks and all those on the front line who are helping the L’Arche community get through this crisis. With their help, it won’t be long until the Gathering Place opens again and the community starts making new memories.

L’Arche’s members with disabilities want essential workers to know that they’re appreciated. Right now, the three L’Arche London homes have put on an art show in their windows. When a front line worker walks by, they’ll see pleasant pictures with messages like Thank you, essential workers. One individual at L’Arche drew a lighthouse with a message that we should all hold dear right now: There’s a light ahead.