When eight Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College students and Campus Minister Joshua Winters arrived in Canada after an eight-hour drive to their service site for the 2019 Alternative Fall Break trip, they found a feast waiting for them. This warm welcome was followed by an experience that went beyond just service.

“We actually arrived while it was Thanksgiving in Canada and we all got to experience a Canadian Thanksgiving with them, which was really cool. Throughout the whole time we were there, everyone was so nice and inviting,” said nursing major Whitney Ramsey of Terre Haute.

Ramsey was referring to the members of the community making up L’Arche in London, Ontario, Canada. L’Arche is an organization fostering an environment of community with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Ramsey and fellow students spent their fall break week in L’Arche, where they received not only the opportunity to serve but also to learn valuable life lessons.

After being welcomed to the community with a Thanksgiving celebration, they spent the rest of their stay interacting with L’Arche’s core members (the individuals with disabilities who form the heart of the community) and the assistants (individuals without intellectual disabilities who share daily life with core members) in various ways.

They shared meals, painted a kitchen, cleaned out a garage and made art and music together.

“This trip impacted me in many ways,” Ramsey said. “I felt a sense of fullness and calmness after coming back from this trip.”

The students’ stay in L’Arche London came at the invitation of Mary Bee Baroody Haworth, an SMWC alumna of the class of 1984 who has been with L’Arche for 31 years. Haworth, a member of the L’Arche London leadership team, coordinated the students’ stay. “For many, many years, I’ve dreamed of trying to forge a connection with L’Arche and The Woods so, this was really a dream come true for me,” Haworth said. “It was very special to have them come.”

A few months ago, Haworth read about a student alternative break trip on SMWC’s social media or website, which prompted her to send an e-mail through the contact info on the website, and finally make her dream a reality.

In organizing the activities, she intended for the students to have a meaningful experience of both service and understanding of true community life shared by adults with and without intellectual disabilities. Creating an experience where the students could feel L’Arche’s sense of celebration, welcoming and belonging was important, Haworth said. It was an opportunity for the students to offer something, collaborate, be connected — “not just you for me or me for you but us together as well,” she said.

During a Wednesday open mic — where students enjoyed coffee and treats made by core members — the community experienced one of The Woods’ cherished traditions: students and alum voices joined in the singing of the iconic Ring Song and its famous line, “And I have promises and miles to go.”

“What I learned from The Woods and what I received when I was there — and beyond that in my circle of friends that has never died — is family, the sense of community, the sense of belonging,” Haworth said.

She also lived and experienced this sense of connection, mutual understanding and purpose in her life with L’Arche and this fueled her decades long dream to forge a partnership between her two communities.

Haworth believes it was a significant experience for the students at this time in their lives. “One of the key experiences when people come to L’Arche is having a chance to discover that there’s mutuality here. ‘I’m not just coming to give you something but I’m also coming to learn from you,’” Haworth said.

Haworth wanted to give the students the experience of what it’s like to “reach across difference,” and to not be afraid of the unknown or of a person who communicates in a different way. It’s about believing that each person has a gift to share, Haworth said.

In citing an example, she continued, “If I am willing to sit beside this person with no words, wow! what she will show me about listening; what she will show me about presence; what she will teach me about the value of silence.”

So, for a week, the students became part of the community. They stayed in L’Arche homes with core members and assistants, and became part of the life of the home they were in. They also participated in the community events.

“The trip was an eye-opening experience to see how people in the L’Arche communities live. It’s a unique living arrangement and something I would not have known existed without this experience,” said psychology major Jessica Moore of Terre Haute.

“The people who live with the core members [people with intellectual disabilities] have dedicated their lives to [them] and love them unconditionally. The trip made me think about how we should treat others and that we should care for people even if they’re different from us.”

Dianne Frances D. Powell is associate director of marketing and communications at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, which provided this article to the Tribune-Star.

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