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.

jean Vanier

Street Seens: An Ark Built for the U.S.A.


Last week we explored An Ark Built of Respect flourishing in Toronto. Not far from there in the town of Erie, Pennsylvania a name forever associated with a modern miracle of transportation, another Ark had set out in 1972. On November 22, 1972, just eight years after Jean Vanier had established the first L’Arche in France, two similarly visionary planners, Benedictine Sister Barbara Ann and Father George Strohmeyer of Gannon College committed to “do something together for God,” and L’Arche USA was born. They recognized the need and the potential to adopt the model of the shared community to Erie. They brought together Intellectually challenged individuals and those who would assist them to live in the style of a family and this shared home enriched both. Jean Vanier’s dream had been communicated to Sister Barbara Ann in a conference when she heard him describe the power of mutual respect as the basis for a healing community modeled on the family.

Atlanta-HomeL’Arche Home in Atlanta

By 1982, the consummate planner Sister Barbara Ann died at the time of an international gathering of the L’Arche Federation. Jean Vanier had come to the US to address the group and her passing seemed to come as a reassurance to all that the dream would continue. Steve Washek, the current Vice National Director of L’Arche USA refers to the Erie foundation as “the Mothership.”(of L’Arche USA) As he told the story of Sister Barbara Ann’s death it is easy to imagine that she went with a peaceful certainty that the ship was on course to carry Jean Vanier’s dream towards new horizons.

Now in 2016, Gannon has become a University and L’Arche a national phenomenon stretching from Long Island to Seattle, 20 communities comprising 64 homes (57 houses and 7 apartments) in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Each community is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit corporation governed by its own board of directors and managed by a caring professional staff. They are united by their membership in L’Arche USA and the International Federation of L’Arche.

Chicago-Christianne-and-Rebecca-1024x768Christianne and Rebecca of Chicago L’Arche

Groups called “Friends of L’Arche” are actively engaged in the process of nurturing emerging communities. Each L’Arche house or community serves the needs of intellectually challenged persons who live and grow along without such challenges in what Steve describes as “honesty, forgiveness and authentic relationship.” Both are similarly transformed by the daily discovery of what can happen when a myopic view of disability is replaced by a wider vision of ability that is based on creativity, hope and mutual respect.

Steve Washek began his L’Arche voyage of discovery as a college student in his native Erie in the Spring of 1980. Like so many, he came to help people living with intellectual disabilities. And as he shared a daily life of the commonplace: chores, decisions, reflection, assessments, meetings and celebrations, concern for each other with a special emphasis on care for the most vulnerable, a job became a life. In 1980, he had met his wife Vicki who shared his commitment to the daring social experiment that is L’Arche and is now a Community Leader. At present, their three adult children exemplify the ideal of living lives transformed by meeting and sharing life with people L’Arche understands are partners in the building of a humane society and not just recipients of care. Jamie is a husband and a student pursuing his Doctorate of Physical Therapy; Meghan, a Mother of four and House leader; and Matthew living and assisting in one of L’Arche’s 7 homes and 4 Life Sharing arrangements.

St-Louis-CardinalsSt. Louis L’Arche at a Cardinals Game

As the population of intellectually disabled becomes older, more diverse and independent, L’Arche is expanding its horizons to integrate single individuals into existing families. Steve and Vicki, for example have invited Leroy to live with them. He will celebrate his upcoming 79th birthday in their home as a member of their extended family.

There has never been any question as to the value of the L’Arche philosophy for any of this Pennsylvania family. The challenge for them, and especially for Steve in his administrative role, is to find ways to ensure that the L’Arche vision is sustainable. Its nonprofit status and respectful relationships with various sources of public and government funding can help ensure that their funding follows members of its core communities. Development programs are designed to capture the imagination and good will of donors who want to support this brave social experiment. All of this converges at a point where people of realism, hope and good will choose in the words of the L’Arche website to become involved in the building of a more humane world.

Click for more information about L’Arche USA

Opening photo: Seattle L’Arche’s community vacation.
All photos courtesy of L’Arche USA

Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.

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.

Street Seens: Heroes of Hope from Mount Olympus to Mud Creek and Far, Far Beyond


Last week while digging out from under the tsunami of paper that seems to be the “meany joke” of the computer era I found two old documents I’d like you to read. Let’s start with them and join me in finding where it took me and where I hope it may take you.

Pandora, the Power of Myth and the Road to Hope

 Opening Pandora’s box is a phrase that means unleashing troubles. It came into the language from Greek mythology. This is the story:

Pandora was the first woman the gods placed on earth. Zeus directed that she be made and that she be given the best each of the goddesses had to offer (beauty from one, grace from another, etc. …. Her name means “all-giving”): When she came to earth, she brought with her a box that she was told not to open.

So she was really, a living gift from Zeus.

Meanwhile, on earth, Epimetheus was quite taken with her. So much so that he forgot the warning of his brother Prometheus never to take a gift from Zeus. Because Zeus remained really angry that Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and given it to humans. So Epimetheus (whose name means hindsight) only realized after the fact that Pandora was going to mean trouble. In short order, she opened the box and out flew all the troubles of the world. The only thing left inside Pandora’s box was hope.

 Mud Creek’s Mermaid and a new way of Seeing

 THE LITTLE MERMAID OF MUD CREEK (Originally written as an account of a childhood memory).

When I was a little girl I lived in Illinois in a village a Sunday afternoon car ride away from an even tinier farming community where my Father had been born.Those rides often centered on the farm which Daddy had inherited, but never farmed, having fallen in love with the business of automobiles.

 The land was flat and often dry, with great expanses of treeless spaces that were kinder to corn and soybeans than to people and dreams. But near the house there was a strand of trees and running near the house was a small creek which was crossed by a bridge of wooden boards which spoke out its name as the tires of my Father’s sea green Lincoln Zephyr drove over it, saying, “Parump, Parump, Parump.”

 Sometimes I would go back to that bridge to look down at the water and let my dreams move with its gentle flow. There was never much water there, I suppose, and less when relentless Illinois summers took their toll.

 One summer Sunday, I walked to the bridge, dressed in my Sunday best finery. I can’t remember what dress I wore that day, but I do remember the treasure I had at my wrist. It was a stretchy partial circlet of blue pearls with a blue enameled metal rosebud at its center. As little girls will, I moved the bracelet around on my wrist…uncoiling each end, in succession…tempting fate, until fate snapped the trap. With a splash, the beautiful pearl bracelet slipped off my wrist and splashed into the inelegant bed of Mud Creek. I’m sure I wailed and went back towards the house calling my parents away from their conversation with the young couple who were their tenants at the farm.

 The details are dim, but the luminous point of it all will never stop shining as a beacon in my memory. When Momma and Daddy had returned with me and concluded that the bracelet was not to be found, she told me the wonderful and utterly comforting story of what had happened to my treasure.

 It seemed, she said, that a little mermaid lived, out of sight, someplace near the banks of that little stream. She always kept herself hidden from view, but she was there nonetheless and she delighted in the stream and in the very special treasure she found in it this summer Sunday.

 If only we could see, Mother made me understand as she soothed and carried me along with her story, we would observe a beautiful little mermaid, splashing in the water and occasionally coming to rest on a rock near its bank, revealing the wonderful blue pearl bracelet she wore on the shiny, left fin of her mermaid tail.

 What I had learned at the end of reviewing those two resurrected documents included these facts:

  • Myths are not fantasies but as the great Joseph Campbell knew, they are accounts of a shared human experience so deep that it keeps making sense to people separated by geography and history and unites people who have every reason to be divided.
  • And as surely as myth is not just a fantasy, hope is not just wishful thinking. At its heart, hope is a way of imagining. A great Jewish sage told the story of two men sitting on benches in the relentless noonday sun. One looked hot and uncomfortable. The other cool and comfortable, because he had planted a shade tree and was imagining how pleasant it would one day make his bench.

The two documents I happened upon this week reminded me that the indispensable gift of hope is at its heart a way of seeing and a brave way of imagining.

In this season that includes both Easter and Passover, the last misunderstandings of hope can be swept away. And how? By the peaceful recognition that real bravery and daring and strength consist in imagining a better world and working to ensure that it will emerge.

Based on that, I started building an inventory of heroes of hope. Finding the documents was pure serendipity. So don’t be surprised if you find this first, provisional list generates responses ranging from, “Who?” to “Of Course!” to “Why in the World?” It includes robbers and saints; legislators and community organizers; doctors and documents, journalists; theologians, children, adults and whole families.

I hope you know many of them, will discover others and most of all begin to compile your own honor roll of hope.

Dismas, was alleged to be a robber who owned up to his own crimes, apologized to the victim to his left, threw in his lot with him and thereby won a promise of Paradise. Dr. Eben Alexander, who came back from days of flatlining with the conviction that he had to spend the rest of his rescued life recounting experiences of the unconditional love that moved Newsweek to headline a cover story “Heaven is Real.” Each child at a Seder who asks what makes the night different and believes the answer about rescue and renewal. Friends of Van Cortland Park, New York City’s third largest Park, and the Network for Peace Through Dialogue that honored them for turning an urban jewel into a safe and progressive place where 6000 children and adults enjoy educational and stewardship programs. Elizabeth A. Johnson, whose Ask the Beasts inspires hope that ecological care will be at the center of the moral life. Author/columnist David Brooks whose Road to Respect distinguishes the resume virtues from the eulogy virtues in a way that discourages the rise of demagogues and those addicted to celebrity. Lincoln as champion of the Emancipation Proclamation and Pope Francis and his Declaration of a Year of Mercy. The 900 Muslim members of the NYPD, The Amish families who forgave the poor, sad person who systematically murdered their girl children years ago in Pennsylvania. The family of Anne Frank, who were turned back when seeking refuge in the United States and protected their child from the prison of bitterness if not the camp where she met death. Mother Teresa who formed an alliance with the young American president of ORBIS, the airborne hospital of ophthalmology to seek treatment and healing for a child of the “poorest of the poor” and changed Pina Taormina’s life in the process and over years of advocacy. Jean Vanier, son of privilege who founded the unique and respectful L’Arche Communities made up of people with disabilities and those who come to share life with them.

The two documents I found this week told me of the value of story telling and really seeing.  I was reminded that these are two sure signs that heroes of hope are at work in our world.