Every week this group of people with, and without, disabilities, gather to share each others' company in Bendigo

A group of people with, and without, intellectual disabilities are coming together every week to share each others' company. TOM O'CALLAGHAN discovers the group is bringing hope to parents fearing the day they can no longer look after children.

The kitchen at Bendigo L’Arche’s House of Welcome is bustling. A pasta dish is on the menu today and people are everywhere grating cheese and dicing vegetables.

This group of eight people with intellectual disabilities, two assistants and a coordinator are relaxed. The House of Welcome is something of a homelike base of operations located in a quiet Kennington street.

Originally formed in France, L’Arche (The Ark) is an international federation of 147 communities where people of all abilities join with each other to share faith, community and relationship.

A core group of Bendigo community members come together every week to share each others’ company. 

They do a variety of activities and outings, including yoga and tenpin bowling. The group is planning a trip to Anglesea later this year.

As well as the weekly core group activity, Bendgo L’Arche runs one-on-one sessions and a monthly get-together with everyone, including family and friends.

Core group member Yvonne Caldow says Christmas celebrations are a particular highlight.

Today the core group has decided to beat the heat, stay indoors and cook a meal together. They have arts and crafts planned for the afternoon.

Group member Matt Considine has a love of art and two of his works are about to be hung on a House of Welcome wall.

He says part of L’Arche’s appeal is the opportunity to catch up with his friends.

Fellow group-member Mary Begg also loves being around those she has met since joining.

She had not been involved with L’Arche until she came to Bendigo several years ago with her mother.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Mary says, other than that a friend of hers had a connection to a L’Arche group in Adelaide.

Now she is here every week.

Bendigo L’Arche community coordinator Margaret Segrave says everyone in the kitchen has a tight-knit bond.

“They have a lot of fun together. They look out for each other, they really do,” she says.

Hopes build for a residence for people with, and without, intellectual disabilities

Forming such strong bonds is vital because the group is toying with some grand ideas.

Philippe Bonne, an assistant helping facilitate today’s activities, says one day members of Bendigo L’Arche might share a residence with others who do not have an intellectual disability.

“Eventually we’ve got to look at a bigger place and have more people involved like staff and volunteers,” he says.

A sense of joining together had been intertwined with L’Arche since its earliest days. Founder Jean Vanier first invited two men to live with him after learning about the institutionalisation of people with learning disabilities in 1960s France.

Margaret says shared lives are as much a part of L’Arche as helping people to forge friendships, feel valued and be included.

Yvonne Caldow and Simon Mahlstedt prepare to play a board game at the Bendigo L'Arche House of Welcome. In the background Anthony Smith and Mary Begg watch on. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Yvonne Caldow and Simon Mahlstedt prepare to play a board game at the Bendigo L'Arche House of Welcome. In the background Anthony Smith and Mary Begg watch on. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

“Ultimately, many of them will share their lives together when their parents are unable to care for them,” she says.

“(They can be) in an environment where they know each other – and are comfortable around each other because they have built up relationships over the years.”

Right now, Bendigo L’Arche is in what the group describes as an “establishment phase”. This year the group is focusing on short stays away from home.

While it could not comment on any longer term plans on the drawing board, Bendigo L’Arche is “looking forward to the future, and to the provision of a permanent home for those in our community with intellectual disabilities”.

Helping provide a residence would be welcome to parents of those taking part in L’Arche activities, who Philippe says are increasingly worried about their childrens’ future.

Every member of the core group is an adult. The oldest member is in his 50s. One group member’s father is in his 90s and all parents are thinking about the future.

“They want to make sure they (their children) have somewhere safe to live. That’s probably the biggest issue for the parents,” he says.

“It puts that pressure on us to get things moving.”

A call for volunteers

Even as Bendigo L’Arche ponders plans for the future, its work at the House of Welcome goes on.

Margaret says L’Arche would love to find more people who would like to help out.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” she says.

Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Picture: GLENN DANIELS

The group is particularly keen to get young people involved.

Margaret says that being part of the L’Arche community would be a life changing experience.

Pene Cowey, who has a paid assistant position, says the best thing about her job was the relaxed atmosphere.

“Nobody’s uptight about anything. We go with the flow. We try and keep it simple, fun and flexible,” she says.

To learn more about Bendigo L’Arche or to enquire about volunteeing contact Margaret Segrave on 0438 439 384