Undergraduate Service and Discernment
As part of an educational institution focused on developing the whole person, the Institute makes a certain number of grants available to students committed to service and spiritual discernment. Allison pursued an internship as a live-in assistant within the Arche International Community in Barka, Slovenia. The Arche International is a world-wide initiative to provide homes and workplaces for people with and without intellectual disabilities to live and work together as peers.
With a goal of experiencing the mission of the Arche firsthand, I estranged myself from the culture I knew and lived in their community in Slovenia for two months this summer. What I encountered was the Divine, unconditional Love this organization is founded on—one that turns weakness into strength and makes language, ability, cultural, and geographical differences obsolete.
Allison Bartoszewicz (‘18) in English
Katie Murphy McMahon Grant for Russian and East-Central European Studies
A grant from the Nanovic Institute can have a demonstrable, transformative impact on a student’s future. Whether it be through the experience of independent research, a professional internship, conference presentation, or international service, all students return to Notre Dame profoundly shaped by their encounters with Europe.
If you are a student and interested in discussing possible options, please contact:
Applications for the Nanovic European Internship & Service Grants are accepted on a rolling basis until April 3, 2018.
A World Without Strangers: Rediscovering Unconditional Love with L’Arche Slovenia
In 1964, Jean Vanier welcomed two men with disabilities to leave their “dismal asylum” and live with him in his Trosly-Breuil home. From these relationships, Vanier gained a profound understanding of what it means to be human and live in community, to find freedom in the mutual acceptance of weakness. To love and be loved on a Divine standard. Fifty-three years later, L’Arche International, or as Vanier himself refers to it, the “school of love,” has branched into 147 communities worldwide.
When I first heard about L’Arche, I was curious to how it posed an alternative, more familial mode of residential care for people with disabilities, and I wanted to spend my summer observing this difference firsthand so I could go on to advocate for improvements on the more conventional system. But my scope of investigation soon expanded from “How does L’Arche pose a superior blueprint for caring with people with disabilities?” to “How is treatment of people disabilities transformed when we dare to relate to them? And how does this transform us?” the more I recognized this “school of love” as something much more than a place to live and be physically cared for.
I had a strong, initially inexplicable certainty that I needed to experience L’Arche from the position of utter displacement. So, this past June, thanks to the incredible generosity of Nanovic Institute, I got on a plane and followed this pull all the way to a small village community in Medvode, Slovenia--where I was forced to renounce my American life of language proficiency, academic/athletic achievement, network of familiarity, and general (laughable) reputation of “having it together” for one of a jet-lagged stranger understanding about five words of Slovene, having no familiarity with cultural norms, and knowing only my employer at L’Arche who was picking me up at the airport.
As a short-term live-in assistant, I moved into the community’s “Sunny House” and resided there along with six core members (people with intellectual disabilities) and a rotating group of other assistants. During mornings and evenings, I worked in the house, joining in the chores and meals and the simple hanging out between it all. During the day, I accompanied core members to the workshop, where they worked on a range of crafts, art pieces, food products, and more to be sold for their own personal incomes and to sustain their community.
While the work seemed simple enough on paper, my first few weeks were marked with some hefty doses of frustration. I would often would sit among a dinner table conversation that everyone could understand but me, or I would want to talk to core members about their weekends and hobbies but couldn’t. I found I had a frequent need to retreat and nap sometimes multiple times a day. I felt particularly like a total burden when I returned from a jog one morning with a bloody lip from full-on face-planting on the street, and my boss ended up driving me to the nearest Slovenian health center—only for an ultimate “no stitches needed” verdict. The self-doubt crept in during these moments: Why aren’t you doing better, Ally? Why are you here if you can barely keep it together or even talk to anyone?
In the “school of love,” though, these thoughts are always interrupted by the outreach of kindness. Assistants and core members alike went out of their way countless times to invite me back into the heart of the community, where I was not shamed for my limitations, but rather celebrated for exactly who I was. Co-workers invited me on trips around their gorgeous country. Marinka hugged me four times every day without ever knowing my GPA, 200m time, job experience, future plans, or reputation. This is the way of L’Arche.
Within the light of this perfect love, I faced the painful discovery of my weaknesses. With the guidance of the people I had the undeserved fortune to spend my every day with, I also discovered in this acceptance that I was a bit more goofy, a bit more creative, a bit more joyful, a bit more loving… a bit more, it turns out, me. It wasn’t until then that I understood why I had so needed to be there.
My favorite part of the day became painting with Slavko, a man who has never been able to speak a word in his forty-something years of existence, but squeals with glee when covering entire pieces of paper in paint (and then proceeding to do so on the table until that American intern girl intervenes), eating pancakes, drying dishes, and grating cheese. Stane and I practiced yoga until his Tree Pose was better than mine and we both lost our balance from laughing. I played one-on-one basketball with Ado every day after lunch until they had to repair the hoop. One afternoon Irena, Lucija, and I transformed pulling weeds into an ABBA jam session. Together, we all painted a mural that transformed an ugly shed wall into a gorgeous mural of Slovenia’s beauty, dawning the verse:
“Zemlja je polna Gosdpodove neizmerne ljubezni.” Psalmi 33:5
“The Earth is full of God’s unfailing love.”
When I left just two weeks ago, and hugged an entire room of people I had come to profoundly consider close friends, the only word of Slovene I needed was “hvala.” Thank you. After all, how can you properly thank the people who have shown you the love of God by showing you that you never needed to do anything “impressive” to earn it?
I don’t think I ever will be able to, but I think the best start is to pay it forward in every way that I can. When I returned to America, and found myself once again in the environment where I could have a competitive edge, comfort, and a polished reputation, I found that I simply didn’t want it anymore. I still wanted to be creative and goofy, unashamed of my human weakness, living life with so much love that other people would want to do the same, even if that meant they saw me fall on my face sometimes. I wanted the mission of L’Arche to pour into the way I approached people, my classes, my track career, and every job I hold down the line.
My initial research objective was certainly met, but I now understood that if we want to truly improve the standard system of residential care for people with intellectual disabilities, we must go a bit deeper than structural renovation and policy change. There must be a shift from the tendency to see these people as patients to be treated—or worse, “strangers” to be feared and controlled—to one that recognizes that they are people we can wholly relate to and connect with in the recognition of our shared inherent weakness. In the end, it isn’t just a shift that will benefit people with disabilities, but rather one that will liberate everyone who’s become estranged from their own humanity in the midst of the competition, stress, and anxiety we were—as God’s beloved despite it all—never meant to shoulder.
Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. 1998. Paulist Press. New York, 2008. Print.
Dietrich, Jeff. “L’Arche founder Jean Vanier reflects on weakness and our need for community.” National Catholic Reporter. 29 Aug 2014. Web.