Keeping secrets and winning medals
The eldest of seven children from a sheep and cattle farm near Gunning, Anne Walsh’s younger brothers and sisters cried when she left home.
It was a big step for 18-year-old Anne, who has an intellectual disability and was joining the newly established L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra.
“I was scared to go in the car,” Anne recalls. “The farm was a really good place to live and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.”
A gentle and calm woman, she flourished in a supportive community that respects people’s dignity, affirms their worth and encourages their growth.
Anne’s value was further recognised last week when she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her service to people with an intellectual disability.
The story of Anne’s involvement with L’Arche, from farewelling her six younger siblings in 1982 to today, reflects the growth of the organisation which now has seven homes in Canberra caring for 23 core members.
And a passionate Anne as its Number One ambassador.
“I’ve grown,” is how Anne puts it, so simply.
“L’Arche has helped me to grow as a person, to do things that can be challenging.
“Sometimes we have things that make us feel nervous or anxious. You have to give it a go.
“I came to L’Arche as a shy young lady and now I am confident and outgoing.”
Anne learned of her Queen’s Birthday Honour in a letter from the Governor-General more than a month ago but had to keep it quiet.
“I’m good at keeping secrets,” she chuckled.
Her proud father Barry, a former grazier who now lives in Mollymook, sent a congratulatory email.
“I’m very proud of you Anne,” he wrote. “You’ve done so well and I love you.”
Anne has done well, whether in her role as a L’Arche board member, representing Australia at L’Arche’s 50-year celebrations in Paris six years ago or speaking to hundreds of students at St Clare’s College and Marist College, which support L’Arche.
Not to mention her success as a middle-distance runner and Paralympian.
At the age of 25, Anne was part of the Australian team for the first World Championships for the Intellectually Disabled in Sweden, coming home with a silver medal for the 1500m event.
“And at the Paralympics in Madrid a few years later,” Anne adds, “I beat the woman who had beaten me in Sweden!
“I broke the world record twice in the 3000m and 5000m.
“It was a lot of hard training but I enjoy running. My Dad was a middle-distance runner and it helps you feel good about yourself.
“I said to my parents, ‘I want to go to the Olympics one day’ and I made it happen.”
Ask Anne which award she prizes most, her sporting medals or the Queen’s Birthday honour, and there is no hesitation.
“The Queen’s Birthday one,” Anne beams. “Because it’s about what I’ve achieved with my whole life.”
It is the second time a L’Arche member has received a Queen’s Birthday gong. Canberra woman and former L’Arche international leader Eileen Glass was named a Member of the Order of Australia in 1996.
Community leader Brendan Price said L’Arche was thrilled for Anne.
“L’Arche seeks to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities so it’s fantastic to see Anne honoured this way,” he said.
“We would love to be better known and this award gives us the chance to share our story.”
A father-of-four with a fifth child on the way, Brendan said the great gift of L’Arche was its relationships.
“So many of us are caught up in achieving and doing things but L’Arche calls us back to relationships of the heart,” he said.
“That is where we grow. It’s not about how we perform but how we are as people that matters.”