Nova Scotia

L'Arche Homefires celebrates 40 years of community in Wolfville

L'Arche Homefires celebrates 40 years as a community built around adults with developmental disabilities in Wolfville, N.S.

There are more than 30 L'Arche communities in Canada built around adults with developmental disabilities

The 'founding family' of L'Arche Homefires gather in this photo from 1983. (Submitted by L'Arche Homefires)

L'Arche Homefires gathered recently to celebrate its 40th birthday in Wolfville, N.S., and amid the 1980s-themed music, dancing and movies, came a special moment. 

Members of the L'Arche community, which provides support, programming and housing for adults with developmental disabilities, say it wasn't trying to keep 99 red balloons off the ground while 99 Red Balloons blasted from the speakers, although that was fun. 

It was when they gave out service plaques and rainbow candles to single out particular members. 

The community's first 40-year service plaque went to John MacNeil, who was part of L'Arche's "founding family" in Wolfville, with Keith Strong and Debra and Jeff Moore. They first lived in the Moores's family home. 

Strong died in 2018, and the Moores went on to start JustUs! Coffee, leaving MacNeil as the last founder in the community. 

John MacNeil holds his 40-year plaque. (Submitted by L'Arche Homefires)

And rainbow candles were given to Moritz Kuhlmann and Nathan Whynot, who had just joined the community earlier that month. 

"There's an acknowledgement that it really doesn't matter how long you're here in L'Arche, there is so much you can share," said Devon Edmonds.

"I've been in community for 19-plus years and I can recall people who were here for a very short time, who had a tremendous impact on my journey."

John MacNeil, centre, poses with members of L'Arche Homefires in the 1990s. (Submitted by L'Arche Homefires)

Louise Curtis, the community's leader, said she felt that sense of welcome first-hand when she joined in January. She had to spend two weeks in quarantine and found her room lovingly stocked with all of her favourite things. People dropped by daily to bring her coffee and other treats, and to welcome her through the window. 

"I was astonished when I first moved to Nova Scotia," Curtis said. "I came from Vancouver and even in my first few weeks, people on the street knew who I was. I didn't know who they were! But they would come up to me and say, 'You're Louise and you're from L'Arche.' Of course I can't get away from it when I open my mouth and my accent comes out."

Curtis comes from New Zealand originally, and said many of the assistants bring an international perspective with them.

L'Arche Homefires moved into this space on Main Street in 2017. (CBC)

The first L'Arche community was formed in the 1960s and today there are more than 150 communities on five continents, including more than 30 Canadian communities in nine provinces

"We're really lucky to be part of an international federation of L'Arche and it provides so many opportunities to expand our circle," Curtis said. "We're in small-town Nova Scotia, but we're so multicultural." 

L'Arche Homefires has grown from the founding four to more than 100 people, with about two dozen core members and 80 assistants in several houses, workshops and retirement programs.

Edmonds estimates that several thousand people have been part of L'Arche Homefires over the four decades. 

The Wolfville community also has strong ties to students at Acadia University and NSCC, partnering to enjoy swimming, scary movies, or other activities. 

Brenda Henshaw works the loom in the weaving room. She's been a member of L'Arche Homefires for 35 years. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

Core member Lori Chiasson celebrated 30 years in the community.

"I came to L'Arche in 1991. You can say I giggle," she said, giggling. "I like cherry cheesecake for anniversaries." 

Amy Young, a long-term assistant with the day program, shared a poem she wrote for the occasion:

Slow down and sit with me a while
See me smile
Smell the joy we have made
Sing out loud at the laughter we have made.
Sit in silence and hear what we don't say.
Just sit with me and smile for a while.

The monk in the basement

John MacNeil, the last of the founders, wasn't able to attend the party in person. Edmonds and Curtis said in MacNeil's older years, he spends more time at home as "our monk in the basement."

They said he says little in words, but conveys a lot more with his bright blue eyes, gentle smile, and sense of humour. 

"I think he also really enjoys his peace and quiet. I have a giggle when he sits there and he points the TV remote at you and I'm sure he's pushing the mute button," Curtis said with a laugh. 

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