There is so much I want to say about my experience at the L’Arche community in Bologna, Italy but I will never be able to describe the reality of my experience or fully express the appreciation, gratitude, and love I have for it.
First and foremost, I would like to thank God for calling me to serve and leading me to L’Arcobaleno. Before applying and after getting accepted, there were so many times when I was so nervous and unsure about going. Two months, in a city I’ve never heard of, in a community where I didn’t know anyone (not even my co-volunteer from UP), working with groups of people I haven’t really had much experience working with before, and expected to speak a language I’ve never learned, I was terrified. But regardless of all these factors, I knew I really wanted to do this. Not just because it was an excuse to go back to Europe, or solely because of my interest in learning more about and working with intellectually disabled peoples, but because something bigger and unknown kept drawing me to go, to not worry, and to trust in God.
Fast forward to one month in and I was already devastated that I had only one month left. Then the next thing I know, my time came to an end on the 22nd of May, the last month going by in a blink of an eye. And now, it has been over two months since I left Arca and I miss the community and the life I had so dearly.
There are so many things I have come to love about living in community with the ragazzi, or core members. Life was simple. We woke up, ate breakfast together, went to morning greeting and prayer together, participated in some kind of morning activity together (such as physical therapy, art, music, etc.), ate lunch together, took breaks, helped prepare food or the dining table together, ate dinner together, cleaned up together, and then prayed together before going to bed. The house where I was assigned to workr, Cedro, we loved to listen to dance music so a lot of times we would even dance together. Also, before and after every meal, we would sing songs of grace together. Even though this lifestyle sounds mundane or monotonous, I enjoyed every bit of it because I got to share it with some truly amazing people. Everyone had their own pasts, stories, differences, and quirks but we all lived together humbly and enjoyed each other’s presence. The simplicity of our routine made it easier to understand and get to know the ragazzi better. From their seats at the table, to their preferences of music, to what exercises they had to perform during physical therapy, and observing their little quirks, we had come to know them and use these observations to help strengthen our relationships with them. It was a constant struggle not being able to fully communicate with them, but regardless of the language barrier, we were able to build genuine relationships. Through lots of nonverbal communication, being able to anticipate specific needs after some observation, and just merely being present, we became friends and family with these core members, and that was priceless.
During our second week at Arca, we went out for gelato with a few assistants and other volunteers. While we were all getting to know each other, we would also talk a lot about the ragazzi. One assistant made a comment about the ragazzi that resonated with me since and he said, “they are just like us”. That was the biggest lesson that I learned while living life with these disabled adults is that in many ways, we are the same. We all have our good and bad days, our stories that makes us who we are, our vulnerabilities, our weird quirks, some sass and attitude, our own preferences, and most importantly, our yearn to love and to be loved.
Overall, I made the best decision of my life to spend my summer at Arca in Bologna. My experience was very eye-opening and life changing to say the least. It gave me a chance to be completely immersed into Italy’s beautiful culture, the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, to be able to live and work with disabled adults, to learn a new language, to eat Italian food every single day, to have time and space to grow and reflect, to build meaningful relationships, and to be a part of something bigger than you. I was so lucky to have been given this opportunity through UP’s Moreau Center and L’Arche. I also could not have done it without the constant support from my friends and family. Now, I am back at UP and not a day goes by without missing the Arcobaleno community or wishing I was back in Bologna. But being in the present, I hope that as I go through my clinical experiences as a nursing student and building community in my dorm as an RA, I can reflect the love and patience I have received at Arca.
I am ending this final blog with a few of my favorite quotes from Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche:
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. ”
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”