Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Denyse Samson-Burns

Street Seens: An Ark Built of Respect


You will meet three principal characters in today’s time together.

Their stories are stories of listening. And what they heard, changed not just themselves and each other, but the larger worlds in which they live. Each is an eloquent statement of the movement the world knows as L’Arche. Although this is the French world for Ark, their stories will illustrate that this “Ark” is not built of wood and according to a pattern. Instead it appears and grows organically as people are brave enough simply to listen. It is a model for what occurs when people who have listened respectfully, respond with courage born of that respect.


L’Arche is a triumph of hope over despair, faith over skepticism, and love in the beauty of its utter simplicity. Listening to the stories of these three first recounted to me by one of them has been for me like looking through a small hole in a wall and seeing that it reveals a wide and miraculous world.

  • Jean, the son of Canada’s Governor General who served from 1957-69. Although this child of privilege lived in many countries his life was transformed by a landscape of the heart he first glimpsed at a hospital at Val Fleuri in France. He listened, invited two intellectually challenged friends he met there to live as his family in that small farm home in nearby Trosly. Listening, he heard the challenge to his faith and creativity that has so far transformed lives in 140 countries on five continents.
  • John, the charmer and instinctive ladies’ man whose eventual life in a home thousands of miles away from Jean’s farm in France invested him with the dignity and the joy that might otherwise have eluded him.
  • Denyse, the founder of Madison Burns, a brilliant New York City-based Executive Coach and Leadership Development Trainer to Forbes 100 corporations who returned to her native Ontario in 2010.There she heard a call to apply her experience in a new way to find new ways to expand and enrich 21st century models for assisted living.

Jean is Jean Vanier. Born in 1928 as the child of a diplomat, he was a world citizen from the start. Accepted at England’s Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in England at age 13 he joined the forces in the midst of World War II. With a career in the British and Canadian Naval Forces well assured, he left the world of the military in 1950 to pursue the even more demanding lifelong search for spiritual enlightenment. That led him to Val Fleuri in Trosly where his spiritual director and mentor was working at a community that included a hospital for the mentally disabled. There, in what some refer to as “a chance encounter,” he met two patients classified as having intellectual disabilities. Hearing their challenges and recognizing that the hospital was not able to address them, he invited them to join him in the small home he had bought in La Ferme Trosly. Living there in the style of a family, this small community of people embracing two with intellectual disabilities, and others without, became a model of acceptance and inclusion. It became the prototype for L’Arche. A recent reviewer of his newest book, Logician of the Heart, described Vanier, his life and his work as responding to a call to live “outside one’s comfort zone” in order to create genuine human community. By 1964, L’Arche had begun as a unique way to address a widening spectrum of intellectual disabilities.

john2 l'archeJohn Samson

John is John Samson. When he was born in 1957 in Sudbury, Ontario, based on their diagnosis of Down Syndrome, doctors recommended that John be institutionalized. His parents and family disagreed. Beginning then, John and parents and family listened. What they heard was that John lived with them demonstrating his abilities quite as clearly as his disabilities until the early 1980s. By that time L’Arche had become an international movement and John was invited to become a Core Community member of the newly formed L’Arche home in a suburb of Sudbury. He lived there, until his death in 2008, with the community of persons that included those with intellectual disabilities and three or four resident associates. It was in this family of mutual respect that they turned a four-bedroom bungalow into a family home where he lived and thrived for the rest of his life. There John made and maintained his reputation as a “one-man charm offensive” thanks to his sunny disposition and his genius for making those he met feel admired. The long list of interests he continued to pursue ranged from dancing to travel, bowling, and camping.

Denyse is Denyse Samson-Burns and she is John’s sister. With her brother established in his own caring community, she pursued a multinational life as wife, mother and founder of the consulting practice Madison-Burns, based in New York City and supporting clients from the US to Finland and back. She must have heard the echoes of John’s joy and laughter so that they became part of the magnet that drew her to return to establish a corporate footprint in her native Canada. She did that in 2010 and immediately began to be nourished by the roots she and her brother shared. Soon after she must have heard a call to honor her parents and their youngest son by using her skills to ensure that many others would have the consolation and reassurance they had known as the grew older. Their intellectually challenged son had found the wider family and supportive community called L’Arche.

Soon after her 2010 return, Denyse successively became volunteer, board member and, in 2013, Chairperson of L’Arche Toronto. In the collaborative spirit of L’Arche she applies her experience of business and community building to take on the unique challenge of growing L’Arche with its unique combination of a religious/spiritual inspiration lived out in a secular setting. As the society grows more fluid and diverse she works with the core communities, staff, families, board members, service providers and their partners in government. If she has a motto it is never to stop listening for:

  • those who need the help
  • those who want to help
  • those called to be part of the growth.

It is a mission embedded at the heart of L’Arche International, which has succeeded dramatically in the 52 years to become a worldwide movement building communities of respect and inclusion in147 communities in 35 countries on 5 continents. In every one, can be heard the calling of Vanier in 1964.

Larche threeMary Anne, Gillian and Karen of a L’Arche Community

Today, in Toronto and likely around the world, Denyse notes that the challenges include the bricks and mortar issues. Identifying, affording and adapting homes suited to the increasingly diverse and accomplished core communities is a huge challenge. Currently this population is more emancipated, self-accepting. So too is honoring the preferences of assistants who may prefer the “live–out” to the “live-in” pattern of participating in the home community. And the skills and ambitions of core community members whose involvements outside their shared homes are valuable additions to their local communities. L’Arche’s relationships with governments: local, county, state and federal are modeled on the collaboration of respect. There are currently 29 L’Arche communities across Canada with 9 in Ontario, including 5 homes in Toronto. L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express program is designed to provide a creative platform to persons with intellectual disabilities who love to perform. Like so many of L’Arche’s programs it illustrates the diversity and vibrancy of the communities’ members.

Sol ExpressSol Express 

Last month the annual general meeting of L’Arche Toronto was convened at “The Gathering Place.” This aptly named community space was established to welcome the various constituencies and their guests who meet for business, social, and educational events. The presence, the voices, the needs and hopes of core community members were well represented in dialogue with members of the board, assistants and service providers who are a vital part of the lives of the entire community.

The agenda items were practical, focused and ambitious. And while looking to a challenging future, they were no doubt addressed while listening to and hearing the words of Founder Jean Vanier echoed in the website of L’Arche USA: the art of living together is born in the creative welcome of the diversity and fragility of humanity.”

Please return to this space next week, when we will share the amazements of the US communities of L’Arche USA. From the first foundation in Erie, PA in 1972 there are now 17 communities and communities in formation from Long Island to Seattle. Vice National Leader Steve Washek summarizes the sort of listening that epitomizes its growth in the US. “The calling of L’Arche is to BE WITH, not just to BE FOR; to welcome the extended family of all those with intellectual disabilities and those who live and learn with them.” Come back next Sunday as an Ark built of respect sails on.

For more information about L’Arche visit www.larchetoronto.org

Photos of John Samson courtesy of Denyse Samson-Burns; all others courtesy of L’Arche.

Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.