We'd just met that afternoon. But when I asked Olivier Caupin if we could have our picture taken, we embraced naturally like old pals. Just before the photo was taken, Olivier placed his head gently but purposefully on my shoulder.
"You are accepted," his gesture seemed to say.
It was the first of many surprises during my visit to L'Arche (The Ark) in Trosly-Breuil, France -- the birthplace of a community that brings together adults with intellectual disabilities and young adult volunteers known as assistants. The model, conceived by humanist, philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier, now operates in 40 countries.
Olivier was our official tour guide of the first L'Arche community created in 1964. It includes six homes, numerous workshops and greenhouses, a pizzeria and two stores where residents sell handmade soaps, mosaics and candles and homegrown fruit and vegetables.
Trosly-Breuil is a centuries-old village of white stone cottages with white shutters and beds of red roses, at the edge of the lush green Forest of Compeigne, about an hour north of Paris. L'Arche fits seamlessly here. Other than a small sign on the main office, there was nothing that set it apart as a place for people with disabilities.
"We propose to people with disabilities and every assistant to share the same life in the same homes and very simply," said Bénédicte Millet, a former speech therapist who heads a team of staff who support volunteers. Bénédicte, who has lived here for 21 years, spoke to me in English because I couldn't speak French. "We make a family atmosphere," she said.
Most important: "We take the time together to pay attention to everybody and to speak with everybody. To pay attention to those who never speak or who are sad. And to speak to those who are talking too much!"
That's what it was. Each person was acknowledged and valued. "It feels like a village," I said, referring not to it size but to its welcoming atmosphere.
"The message of L'Arche is that people with disabilities have something to teach us..." said Bénédicte. "They have the gift for relationships and we have to learn from them the ability of friendship and tenderness, not competition. We help everyone -- assistants and people with disabilities -- to grow in this capacity."
Olivier showed us around workshop number 2, where more than a dozen workers laboured over projects including small-scale assembly work and packaging of products. A few people were placing small metal pieces into trays of 30 slots to be used in the steering-wheel mechanism of cars. "My mother works at Channel," Olivier told us, explaining that this connection had led to a project packaging makeup. The workshop was part warehouse, with completed items stacked in boxes.
Olivier had a slight stutter and when his thoughts got stuck in production, he closed his eyes tight then blinked, as if willing the words to life. Because my French is so poor, my husband D'Arcy translated. Olivier shared the one phrase he knew in French and English: "Je t'aime. I love you."
Two young women approached and shook our hands warmly. One pointed to my hat. "Do you not have hair?" she asked in gestures. "Could you take off your hat?" I did and she opened her eyes wide and laughed. She didn't adhere to the social etiquette that would prompt someone to pretend they hadn't noticed my alopecia, which makes me different. Our culture's "addiction to the illusion of perfection," which author Ian Brown spoke about at a BLOOM talk, was noticeably absent at L'Arche.
Olivier took us outside and a tiny white dog trotted by. "Is that your dog?" I asked. "No!" Olivier exclaimed, pointing to a fine line that ran from his nostril to his lip and explaining he had been bitten by a dog as a child.
When asked about his favourite things, Olivier said: "Moi, j'adore le football." In addition to playing soccer, he said he liked swimming and horses, all activities he enjoyed at L'Arche.
We entered an art studio. People in smocks sat in a rectangle of facing tables placing small coloured tiles into elaborate mosaics of trees and people. One man was putting clay through a press. The scent of melted parrafin laced with fragrance wafted in from an adjoining room where candles were being made.
People were busy, focused and quiet. It wasn't immediately clear who had disabilities and who didn't. I had the sense that people wanted to be here -- unlike some programs where people with disabilities are cajoled into doing something they're not interested in.
Assistant Jean-Patrice Kroczek, a slight, middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses working on a mosaic, said he found work at L'Arche "very enriching."
Jean-Patrice told me he had lived and worked at L'Arche since 1976 -- 36 years! I was stunned, given popular values about work, success and climbing the corporate ladder, and asked why. "I've always liked being with people who are marginalized, because if it was me, I wouldn't want to be marginalized," he said. Jean-Patrice said people at L'Arche didn't "talk about handicapped people because we talk about working for everyone." Instead, he used the word "gifted" to describe the residents with disabilities. He said his time at L'Arche had taught him about personal relationships.
Hungarian Lilla Gyuris, 21, who came to volunteer last September, said she planned to stay another year. "It's very hard to explain what I've learned," she said. "I found life here. I found a family. And friends. When I arrived, I didn't know what to think. I thought (people with disabilities) weren't normal, but it's not true. Everyone is handicapped a little, and everyone is normal. I can't drive, that's my handicap. And when I came here I couldn't speak a word of French. That's a handicap."
The original L'Arche has grown over the years. Today, in each of nine homes in the village and surrounding area, seven people with disabilities live with a team of four to five assistants. One house serves people with physical and intellectual disabilities. While youth 18 and over have volunteered here from all over the world, candidates are now accepted only from Europe.
"Some assistants arrive with a lot of diplomas and are very intelligent, and others arrive with nothing, having had no success," Bénédicte said. "What we propose is the same for all: to clean the house, to buy and cook the food, to wash the plates after dinner, to make family life. For a lot of them, this is a new life. They're used to studying or eating alone and having their own life and suddenly we are all together and paying attention to everybody."
Six of the 10 assistants who began last September have chosen to stay a second year, Bénédicte said. After volunteering for a year, they will be paid. L'Arche is funded by the French government.
"When Jean Vanier started in 1964 there was nothing for (youth) with disabilities after age 14 or 15," Bénédicte said. "In 1960 a father of a young man with disabilities bought a home in Trosly to house 30 men aged 15 to 25. But it was run like military life with everyone getting up at the same time, going to sleep at the same time and walking two by two in Trosly in the street. There was no possibility for choosing what they wanted."
A priest who was disturbed by the home's regimented lifestyle asked Jean Vanier, then studying theology in Paris, to visit and assess the situation. Vanier "bought a small house in the village where he lived with two young men and was then asked to become the director," Bénédicte said. Over time, the project and its homes grew.
The idea was "to propose family life for the mentally handicapped and a place where they could choose what they wanted to do," Bénédicte said. Vanier, a professor of philosophy, called upon his university students from Canada, England and Paris to consider volunteering. "They were very interested in the project and many came. Social services observed the homes for two years and saw that with less money L'Arche was doing more than the other institutions. So they accepted L'Arche as an institution like the others and we receive money for everything."
While L'Arche is based on community life, residents who decide they want more independence have the opportunity to live, with support, in studio apartments in Compeigne, a nearby city. Bénédicte noted that two residents just got married and others choose to live as couples.
She said parents' expectations for their adult children often change once they see them blossom at L'Arche. "At the beginning, sometimes they want the child to become able to read and write, but more and more, they can understand that that is not the most important thing," she said. "When they see their child happy, with a lot of friends, and with a good life, a very interesting life," they are satisfied.