Anne thankful for the legacy of Vanier’s vision

Annie Patterson (left) and Anne Walsh (right) with some of the works and mementos of Jean Vanier. Photo Chris Gordon.

On the afternoon of May 7, word of Jean Vanier’s death gradually reverberated around the world, slowly filtering out to the many people his life and work had touched.

In Canberra, the news was particularly poignant.

In a quirk of fate, a coincidence of timing, members of L’Arche Canberra were preparing to present the documentary “Summer in the Forest” – the story of Jean Vanier’s Life Work – the next evening.

The news rocked them. The man who had impacted on their lives so dramatically, who had meant so much to them and who they would be honouring that night, had died.

It brought their thoughts about him and about L’Arche into sharp focus, especially so for Anne Walsh.

Quite simply, Jean Vanier had changed her life.

From growing up in Gurrundah near Goulburn, one of seven children in a close and loving family, Anne left home aged 18 to live in a new L’Arche home in Canberra. Now, 100 km from her old home town and 37 years older, by any measure her life is a world away from where it was then, now a respected leader and elder in her Canberra community. 

“I was sad when I heard he’d died,” Anne said.

“I’d met him several times and he was a friend. He taught me a lot. He taught me about relationships, to not be afraid to try things. He helped me become who I am.”

Anne with Jean Vanier and fellow L’Arche residents in 1984. Photo supplied.

When Anne moved to Canberra in 1982, she said it was very scary at first. And it wasn’t just Anne it was scary for.

Like any family, Anne’s family had to come to terms with letting a child leave the nest and move away. It’s a difficult time for any family, and can be even more so for families of a child with an intellectual disability, balancing being protective with offering the best opportunities for their child.

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The suggestion of moving into a L’Arche community came from a relative of Anne’s mother, who was on the board of L’Arche at the time. He believed L’Arche would offer great opportunities and a great lifestyle for Anne. The family took the leap, and Anne has continued to prosper and grow.

“It’s really helped me a lot,” said Anne.

“It got me out of my shell. I used to be a very shy person but I’m not any more.”

Anne now speaks regularly at events to large audiences, such as the Summer in the Forest presentation, and says that it doesn’t scare her at all any more. She is also an official observer at meetings of L’Arche’s National Listening and Speaking Group as a core foundation member and – all part of L’Arche’s central philosophy of inclusion.

Jean Vanier and Anne Walsh at the Chifley home in the early 80s. Photo supplied

Founded by Vanier in 1964, the same year Anne was born, L’Arche is an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and is now located in 37 countries.

Based around the concept of people with disabilities living with carers and assistants in a community environment rather than in institutions, Vanier’s Vision was simple but revolutionary and preceded similar recommendations such as the Richmond Report that came decades later.

Locally, L’Arche began in the old convent at Bungendore in 1978. Two years later it moved to Yarralumla in Canberra to offer access to greater opportunities, such as more jobs and more facilities.

Two years after that, Anne Walsh moved into the Yarralumla home, before later moving to Chifley where she still lives.

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Anne is one of five in her community home which includes other residents with intellectual disabilities and a home sharer who lives with them.

“That’s one of the essential threads of L’Arche,” Annie Patterson, Community Life Coordinator for L’Arche in Canberra, explained.

“People with and without intellectual disability living life together.”

“When L’Arche was started, Jean Vanier felt a personal desire to respond to the institutionalisation of people with a disability.

“He had the opportunity to visit people in some of these huge institutions and he found them to be frightening places of real despair, and he created home initially with three men as a personal response, and it grew from there.”

Claire Lawler (left), Jean Vanier (centre) and Anne Walsh (right) in 2014. Photo supplied.

Anne saw the “Summer in the Forest” documentary for the first time at its special presentation in Canberra, and she said she was reminded of just how much Jean Vanier had done for her and others.

She said she was also struck by how sad she felt for some of the people still in institutions. While Anne has never lived inside an institution, some of her fellow founding core members have.

Anne said that even though she moved away from her family home to live in a L’Arche community, it didn’t diminish her contact with her family at all. She is regularly in touch with all of them and not long ago returned from a two week holiday in Queensland with her sister.

For many years, L’Arche was block-funded by the ACT government which covered about 65% of their operating budget – the rest made up from fundraising, sponsorship and donations.

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Today, L’Arche is a service provider under the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Each of the members has their own individual funding of which a significant portion is for supported accommodation. But that doesn’t cover all of the costs and L’Arche still requires the assistance of fund-raising to fund the shortfall for things that don’t fall neatly under the requirements and guidelines of NDIS.

And while Jean Vanier has passed away, his mission continues. The last few years have been a time of growth for L’Arche in Canberra. There are currently six L’Arche homes in Canberra (one in Chifley, two in Curtin, one in Hughes, one in Kambah & one in Gowrie) with a seventh to open soon. Those L’Arche homes cater to 22 residents at present which will increase when the new residence is opened.

His legacy has been far-reaching and his philosophy remains timely, as Annie Patterson reflected. 

“Jean Vanier’s learning, which he has reflected on over the years, is that initially he thought he was going to do good and to help other people and that was his starting place however very quickly he realised these very people were helping him, transforming him to become more fully human, more aware of how we need one another in the human family and how we can all enrich one another,” Annie Patterson explained.

“I think his life’s work has been particularly around making known the gifts of people with an intellectual disability and their power to be teachers, healers, and leaders in our world, not to be seen as just the recipients of care.

“And today, any marginalized group of people, his message is just very clear, wherever there’s difference, there’s an invitation to find out how we can come together, how can we be a common humanity enriching one another and finding more of what brings us together than what divides.”

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