A Year on Board an Ark

by Suzanna Roye

Last year I spent a year in northern France as a volunteer with an Ark community. The Ark is a network of communities in which mentally handicapped people live together with volunteers who wish to share in their lives. Some volunteers stay for their whole life, others perhaps for a year. Many of the handicapped have come from impersonal institutions or families who want to have nothing to do with them.

In 1964 Jean Vanier founded the first Ark community in Trosly-Breuil. Since then Ark communities have taken root all over the world, mostly based in the dominant Church of the host country --- Catholic in France, Anglican in England, Lutheran in Germany, etc.

I wanted to spend a year in France after leaving school and heard from a friend of the possibility of joining The Ark for a year. The village where I lived, Pierrefonds, near Trosly, contains three foyers (houses). In the biggest, ten handicapped people live with five volunteers, but I landed in one of the smaller houses: five handicapped, a house-manager and myself. Since I was inexperienced and spoke little French, the first weeks were heavy going, but the mutual contacts between the volunteers were so warm that I quickly felt at home.

The volunteers come from all over the world, which makes for a wholly open and international atmosphere. And what was also remarkable were the contacts with the people from the village where four families in particular are very closely tied into the whole life of the community. In the daytime the handicapped work in workshops and I often had the job of taking them there in a mini-bus through the beautiful Compiegne forest.

Nearly every day there was something going on. There are two hot meals per day and at most meals a guest: either a volunteer from another house or a handicapped person from a nearby village. We were always sending out invitations and receiving as many in return. When there was anything to celebrate, it was done with gusto. Every birthday or feast day was an excuse for invitations --- and thus new opportunities for hospitality and family life.

Here's an extract from a letter I sent home to Amsterdam:

"I can certainly say that the people I'm living with have become friends. They can sometimes look at you with such a questioning gaze as though they were thinking: 'What is it that you have that I don't have?' And that makes me feel guilty that I have such good fortune in life. A little while ago Laurent --- one of the handicapped --- had to have his hair cut and I thought it would be good for him to make the appointment himself. The two of us went over carefully what he had to say and why he had come. This man has absolutely no sense of order in his thinking. If, for example, he asks what time we're going to eat and I reply 'half-past twelve,' he will then say 'Oh, so we're going to eat at half-past six'! I said to Laurent that I would wait for him outside the barber's shop. He went in, stayed for five minutes and came out again, but without an appointment card. He looked at me with as desperate a look as I've ever seen and I asked him whether he had made the appointment. Whereupon he became angry and said, 'No, but I work harder than anybody, I have the biggest biceps, and why has my mother not rung yet, I'm the best.' I answered: 'Laurent, we're not here to say who is the best, but just to make an appointment to get your hair cut.' Laurent: 'Oh, yes, yes, you do forgive me, don't you? You do forgive me?! I'll go in now and make that appointment.' It gives you a good feeling when he actually makes the appointment himself, even if the process can hardly be called a smooth one!"

Nothing ever goes as smoothly as one would like. There was always something crazy happening. Sometimes you have to step in forcefully to keep things on the right path. Naturally people are not always nice to each other which, for me, is actually more difficult than solving the day-to-day problems. Who am I to tell a man fifty years older than me what he should or should not do? Sometimes they even say as much to me, and that hurts. But always, afterwards, they come to me to shake hands and apologize.

Of course difficulties arise whenever people try to live together. What surprised me was that the handicapped, just because they are so much themselves and express at once what they feel and think, helped me to know myself a bit better. I look back on a special year. I got to know a loving community in which everyone, handicapped or not, had the chance to grow.

Suzanna Roye is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. She now hopes to join an Ark community in England.