Experience Making a Difference

Experience Making a Difference

MARCH 24, 2023Gary Dhein, an IVC volunteer for L'Arche, standing with two visitors to the L'Arche commnity.

A Volunteer’s Prospective


Recently, while at a dinner at one of the houses, we were joined by two guests who were interested in the possibility of helping to form a new L’Arche community in another city. One of the two guests asked me why I keep returning to volunteer two days a week in my retirement. (I’m in my fourth year). I was a little caught off guard by the question and without hesitation, I told them that it was the relationships that kept me coming back. It’s the relationships with the core members, yes, but also with the assistants, other volunteers, the staff, and the parents of core members that I have met. It’s really the whole community. It’s an honor to be a member of this community and as I tell anyone who asks, it seems that I get a lot more out of my involvement than I put into it.

I joined L’Arche Chicago through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) in Chicago, a group of 60 some retired people who agree to donate two days a week to schools and other service organizations that can put their lifetime experiences to work. When I joined the IVC, I went through a process with the director to help discern what I wanted to do and with what school or organization. I was interested in tutoring at a school or perhaps teaching English as a second language. During our conversation, she asked me if I ever heard of L’Arche. I knew about it through reading Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual writers, but I didn’t know there was one in the area. From reading Nouwen, I had a favorable impression and wanted to investigate further. I was curious to take the next step, which was to meet with Matt Whalen and visit one of the houses. That was arranged fairly quickly nd the next thing I knew, I was telling Matt which days of the week I wanted to come in.

A few months later, I started to serve at Friendship House and after DSP Training, began to experience L’Arche as a volunteer assistant. I’d soon come to find out that it is all about the community and the relationships that form from the daily activities. The community was welcoming and open from the start. For some of the core members, it took a while for them to get to know me, as I am a bit older than the other assistants (no kidding!). But after a while, each did get to know me, in their own unique way. And that is the nature of relationships, each one is unique. The summation of all the relationships forms the community. And this community is like no other than I’ve ever encountered.

Each of the L’Arche houses is a community within a larger one, meaning a neighborhood community. One day last Fall, while sharing life at Angel House, core member, Christianne and I went for a short walk to buy a few things from the comer grocery store nearby. When we got to the store, we picked out our items, then went to pay. Christianne was very friendly and greeted the other customers. There were some teenagers hanging around the counter and I wondered what their reaction would be as we approached them. As it turned out, they returned her friendliness and motioned for us to go to the front of the line. When Christianne paid, she displayed her generous nature by telling the owner to keep the change, as you might do in a restaurant. Well, the owner would not accept it and dropped the change into her purse, not wanting to cheat her. We both left feeling very good about our neighborhood community interaction. The courtesy and respect shown to us in this little comer store was heartwarming.

Watching the nightly news about the world’s problems, it is easy to become discouraged about the current state of affairs and the future. Sharing life in one of our houses has become, for me, the perfect antidote to the depressing news. Each time I enter one of our houses, I see people treated with dignity and respect. Through the countless acts of daily living: preparing and sharing meals together, going grocery shopping, playing Yahtzee, planting vegetables, going to doctor appointments, we are aiming to lead wonderfully normal lives where people strive to learn and achieve, yet have fun and look forward to events and activities.