I have always known the my experiences in L’Arche London (formally known as L’Arche Lambeth) were special times. Explaining the experience of living with and supporting adults with learning disabilities is something that you can’t explain in a way to give justice to it. It transformed my very being and allowed me to experience some of the very hardest and some of the very best moments of my life. I don’t want that previous sentence to sound too cliche – but its true.
Before joining L’Arche fresh from University I naturally had a limited experience of life – mostly myself and my family. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for as such. I was going to a community that was very much rooted in beliefs of a traditional faith nature and I was/am of a spiritual nature but not of a religious background. I was also informed unofficially that I would be fine there in any home as long as I wasn’t going to be in a certain home that had been experiencing some stressful months. Yes of course I then found out that that was the home where I was going to be! I had had no previous experience of working with adults with learning disabilities and when I first arrived I was met with a busy corridor – full of adults with and without learning disabilities. I can honestly say that my first feelings were those of anxiety. How on earth was I, literally just out of University going to be able to support adults with learning disabilities?!
However, it was in these early days that Carol was really the first person with a learning disability that I got to know. I can’t say that I remember too much in terms of details from the early days or any of the days in a way that would be nicer to remember – as my memory is pretty awful sometimes. I was desperately looking for photos on my external drive, but sadly believe most of these early day memories are real photos in an album (which is also quite good) in another country from the one where I am now. I’ll hopefully find them in due time. I do of course remember a sense of the time I spent in L’Arche.
What I do remember is Carol’s welcome of everyone who arrived in the house – short or long term visitor – friend or acquaintance. I remember her interest in and knowledge of everything that was going on in the house. I remember her sense of humour and the persona she played when having fun. Although she naturally took a while to allow me to support her fully – something I respected – as why should she straight away with someone she doesn’t know – and someone who is younger and has less experiences in life than her and who is also anxious about dong something wrong when first getting to know people. This is what I first respected about Carol, and the same with Michelle. They both knew who they were in terms of what was their personal space and what and who they did and didn’t like. They also knew and expressed who their long term friends were and I knew that if I did anything Carol didn’t like that she would let me know that she wanted to tell one of her friends in particular about it! However, over time we developed a trust between us and I can hear the way she called and said my name as I write now. I can also remember her taking my arm when walking somewhere. What I remember most fondly was her concern for others – she knew if you were not 100%. She would ask if you were ok. I remember her smile and her willingness to have a go at new things – such as when a colleague and I started doing some sensory storytelling in L’Arche a few years back. Carol is also one person who I can clearly see how she maintained her personality but also seemed to be able to find more peace and relaxation as life went on. I can’t believe that I knew her over the span of 20 years – is quite something for any of my friends.
As when remembering Carol I remember the house where I was first living in L’Arche – when I remember Michelle, I remember the stone workshop – which was the first craft workshop in L’Arche that I worked at. I was quite nervous around Michelle at the beginning and I guess she probably was of me as a new person too. However, through the great idea of my then boss and continued good friend, we started doing the health and safety checks together. We got an A4 ring binder folder and I printed off some accessible symbols and photos for the weekly checklist. Michelle could lead on the job, by carrying the folder and ticking off the checklist. She was so thrilled at the thought that she was ‘learning’ and had responsibility. From that moment on we could be friends. I can’t remember when she first went to college but this was in 1998 (same year I came to L’Arche) but I will never forget her thrill at saying that she was learning and the pride she took in that role. She taught us that you really need to give opportunities, responsibility and let people with learning disabilities take the lead.
Both Carol and Michelle had a great love of music and for me I remember the 50s/60s audio cassette we had in the stone workshop. Wish I knew what the playlist was – but do remember the song ‘I remember You’ – that Carol sung along to often – with a beautiful, passionate voice. She also liked the song about ‘No Milk Today’… Michelle – I mostly remember her love of ‘Michelle My Belle’ and Abba tunes! Michelle was also a keen joiner in of the first music and storytelling sessions that I started doing with some colleagues as a freelancer out of L’Arche- and for that I am also grateful to her for her continued friendship.