L’Arche Leader With Global Experience Nurtures Gifts Of People With Disabilities

Patrick McGrath, Warren Tompkins and Zoel Breau at Creative Connections on Prince William Street. Image: Lise Hansen.

SAINT JOHN – Zoel Breau has witnessed the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of L’Arche communities at work around the world, and he’s come home to New Brunswick to help nurture the efforts of the local group that operates an arts and culture workshop on Prince William Street in Saint John.

The local L’Arche community opened a home for people with intellectual disabilities on the city’s west side 13 years ago, following a model established by Jean Vanier in 1964. But Breau says the organization worldwide is now moving toward establishing public hubs to showcase and nurture the entrepreneurial and creative gifts of members of the community.

As an International Delegate for the last six years, Breau has visited 25 countries in central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. At home and abroad, he has witnessed the entrepreneurial spirit of people with intellectual disabilities.

In Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Breau says the L’Arche community began making candles 20 years ago and then they received a loom to make woven products. Applewicks has since blossomed into a thriving business with 13 looms and storefront shop that sells crafts and candles.

“They now have two quality products made by people with disabilities with a shop in Wolfville,” said Breau in a recent interview.

In Bethlehem, he says the L’Arche community established a workshop that grew into a year-round business for tourists because of the skills of the participants and the support of outsiders who wanted to help.

“A woman came into the workshop one day and said, ‘I have sheep and you can have a supply of wool,'” said Breau. “A woman was also there from Germany and she taught them how to make felts that were used in making nativity scenes sold to locals and tourists. They live in Bethlehem and it’s Christmas every day there. All of the Christians of the world go there.”

Two years ago, L’Arche opened the Creative Connection workshop on Prince William Street. Board chair Jim Kokocki says it quickly became a hub of creativity with local L’Arche members taking up paintbrushes and filling the walls with art. The street-front location caught the eye of passersby, tourists and locals alike.

“We get a lot of drop-in visits from cruise ship passengers,” said Kokocki. “They want to know what’s going on. They buy art and make comments, and make donations.

It’s such a public space with big windows and bright lights. There’s a lot of joy happening in this room. A lot of people see that and experience that.”

Breau says public spaces like the workshop are effective ways of showcasing the talents and contributions of people with intellectual disabilities.

“Our mission is to make known the gifts of people with disabilities, who they are, what impact can they have on society,” he said.

Kokocki says the community response has been a pleasant surprise. He also takes pleasure in observing the emerging talents of the members.

“When we started Creative Connection, it was about getting together and making art,” he said. “We didn’t expect to sell any of the works. People started visiting and making offers. These kinds of things just emerge organically.

“It’s interesting to watch how some of the talents of the core members have evolved. I was watching [one of the members the other day] and she has such a lovely, deft touch.”

L’Arche Saint John, with its five-person house on the west side and Creative Connections uptown, is relatively small compared to other centres across the country or around the world. But Kokocki is heartened by the work they’ve done here and optimistic about their prospects for further growth with Breau now on board.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done in 13 years,” he said. “We’re proud of the operation on the west side, very delighted with the outreach centre on Prince William. We’re delighted to have Zoel’s wisdom about how to extend our reach and let more people know about the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities; that more people have these transformative relationships.”

Breau is originally from Tracadie-Sheila and wasn’t planning to return to his home province after years of working with L’Arche communities around the world. But the new Community Leader for Saint John is excited by the challenge of growing the group’s presence and influence here.

“People tell me, ‘you inspire me because you would come back to Saint John to work with people at the local level, at one home, one little workshop on Prince William. It triggers something in people.”

“I’m choosing another life that’s going to bring me surprises, and new challenges.”