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An Innovative Model of Life-Sharing in the Comox Valley

Innovative housing options that promote choice, autonomy, and inclusion are changing the landscape of disability supports in Canada. The Vanier Suites of L’Arche Comox Valley are a new model of shared living renewing the vision of L’Arche.

Meeting the people who live in the Vanier Suites is a life-affirming experience. These members of L’Arche Comox Valley, B.C. obviously delight in each other in the same way that team, school, or work mates often do. What makes them outstanding is that they are neighbours. Their friend, Larry, observes, “In just 18 months, the folks who live here have come to trust and rely on one another. I know people who live in apartment buildings, and they don’t even know their neighbors’ names.”

The Vanier Suites is a new way of living the L’Arche vision that responds to the dreams and goals of many persons with intellectual disabilities today – a cluster of one and two-bedroom apartments with a common space and weekly meals and gatherings. It’s attached to the L’Arche Comox Valley I Belong Centre, their community hub. Each person is supported to meet their goals for a good life, maximizing their independence and inclusion while building a sense of belonging, mutual support, and shared responsibility.

Listening to the lived experience

Who are these people who share life at the Vanier Suites? And what do they have to say about their home? Let’s meet them:

  • Nick is an older man with lots of energy. “It’s a very sweet building. I’m going to keep it so nice. I take care of it.” You can hear the pride for his home in his voice. “I got some excellent plants I’m going to take care of in my apartment. I got a lovely jade plant. I got another funky kind of tree, sort of a fern tree… I get along well with everyone else in this apartment building.”
  • Paul is an older man with a more calming energy. “It’s just a joy living here with Randy. (They share a two-bedroom unit.) I love trying to help people out if I can, being like a mentor.” And the relationships go two ways. “I’m not good at mechanical stuff, computers. Randy helps me with that.” He values “the independence that you have. I lived with my sister for 30 years.”
  • Judith (Judy) is an enthusiastic, older woman. She lived in other apartments, but finds this one “more quiet than where I used to (live).” She scrapbooks and plays the piano – her favorite music is country and western. “I feel free if I want to go somewhere. I go to see my mum too.” Judy’s mum often attends the L’Arche community’s Senior Circle on Mondays with her, Nick, Paul, and Larry.
  • Kevin is a young man involved in many sports. He has a job on Mount Washington for the ski season. He’s a world traveler who also loves karaoke, dancing, and playing the guitar. What he likes about his home is “the people” and “how close it is to town so I can walk everywhere – the bank, coffee shop, restaurants, grocery stores.” He smiles warmly. “What’s not to like?”
  • Randy had a lot of tough life experiences – he tried group homes but he wasn’t allowed to take responsibility. When living with his mom, he hung out with a bad crowd. He’s grateful for the Vanier Suites. “I don’t know where we’d be right now.” And he’s thriving there. He loves greeting people at the community centre, baking cookies, and making burgers or pasta in his home for his friends.
  • Yulia is the assistant who provides support to each person and helps them work together to create community. She has experience living in homes in a few L’Arche communities so this is also her first time of living in her own apartment and forming an intentional community, so she is learning with the others.
  • Robert was not part of the interview because he was at work. He’s described as a man who is focused on his career and achieving his life goals.
  • Larry doesn’t live at the Vanier Suites, but he is a long-term, committed L’Arche member who brings a lot of community experience to the group. “We adopt each other as role models. I feel relied upon just enough.” He is also able to be “a good friend when people feel a little bit lonely.”

Learning from this lived experience

Out of the blue, Randy said, “We had a potluck.” Paul added, “I made the butter chicken. They loved it. I hardly got any, but that’s okay.” The potluck with the whole L’Arche community was at the I Belong Centre. It was a testimony to how these relatively new members feel a deep sense of belonging in L’Arche and contribute their gifts and abilities. Rather than isolating them, this experience of belonging is giving each person more confidence to contribute to the wider community in their work, family, and other community spaces where they also belong.

The experience of belonging was built over time. Each week, there are two community times. On Wednesdays, it’s a house meeting followed by a meal, then a time for prayer. Sometimes, they invite guests, such as the members of Jubilee House, a traditional L’Arche home. They take turns sharing responsibility for setting up, cooking the meal, and cleaning up. On Fridays, they do a social activity that they decide on together; favorites include movies, bowling, or other local outings.

While some of the group knew each other from different groups, they weren’t close friends. Randy needed time to trust his “new crowd” because he had been burned before. Larry recalls, “When Kevin first came into our community, I don’t think I heard him say more than three or four words, one word at a time. Now, we can hardly shut him up!” Trust and openness are built through many casual moments as well as formal times for each person to share how things are going.

It’s clear that being responsible means a lot to each person. Nick is proud of “the things you do on your own. I know how to wash my own laundry. My apartment is clean, never dirty.” Randy took responsibility for his home by learning from his peers. Kevin still depends on his mom to remind him to tidy things up… Yulia is thrilled that when she is away, the group takes care of things. Paul says, “It’s like a family, an extended family. We have a lot of parties. We clean up after. Living here at Vanier Suites, we have to do it ourselves. If we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”

Of course, life isn’t always easy. Paul says, “We all get lonely sometimes, but that’s okay.” Randy would like to see “more girls” as there are no women his age; he’s advocating for another Vanier Suites because he knows people in town who need a good home. Larry talks about Graham, a founding member of the Vanier Suites, who had to move into long term care. He and others visit Graham and bring him to events if he is up for it. “It’s difficult to let go. We’re learning that we are as important as family to one another.”

Building a Learning Culture

What’s being lived in the Vanier Suites is not a happy accident. This project is the fruit of a vision and practices rooted in 50 years of L’Arche community life. It’s also informed by the knowledge of Supported Independent Living groups in L’Arche, local social service agencies, and innovative housing options developed by partner organizations. Social purpose businesses (such as new forms of housing) that develop innovative, sustainable options while renewing the L’Arche vision are essential for our future.

Discerning what is essential to L’Arche – and what is not – is key to innovation and growth. In this project, key elements such as welcome, mutual relationships, person-centered practices, shared meals, personal sharing, prayer, celebrations, shared decision-making and responsibility, contributing gifts, and connection to the wider community were all affirmed. New elements include greater privacy and personal space, more personal autonomy and responsibility, and a new business model.

The first L’Arche Canada Interregional Learning opportunity brought leaders from communities in each region and the L’Arche Canada Growth Coordinator to the Comox Valley to learn from the experience of the Vanier Suites and I Belong Centre. Tools and resources informed by what is happening across and beyond L’Arche in Canada are being shared to support communities at each stage of project development. Hopefully, the folks in the Vanier Suites will teach and inspire others to follow their lead for years to come.