Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Explorers Club or Los Tigres

  Clases Cadanino-  This is the group of five young adults that are currently receiving classes outside the center ABI. The classes are held  five and half days a week in the Cadanino rented house. Their primary classroom is a converted garage, but they also have a dining room, kitchen and bathroom.
Most days they arrive around 8:30 am and stay until 4:00 pm.   Their teacher is Jorge Maldonado. He is a dedicated and gifted instructor.    In a few short weeks Jorge has made enormous progress with the kids.

            The Kids (Los Patojos) 

   This sweet young lady is named Carmalina.  She is in her twenties and loves helping out. She enjoys helping with the dishes in the kitchen or folding laundry in the laundry room. She also loves hair clips, purses and costume jewelry. She is very quiet but can speak.

  This is Ernesto who has the nickname Canche (pale face because of pale complexion and bright blue eyes).  He loves to help out and has been fascinated by planes for years.  His dream of flying was recently fulfilled as he had the chance to fly with the military to the ocean. They gave him the royal treatment and he made celebrity status for his 15 minutes of fame. Several newspapers and television station covered the event.   He knows his numbers to 10 and most of the letters. He has strong fine motor skills and can copy letters on paper.

  Jose Luis  (nickname Pajaro (parakeet) for his high pitched chirpy voice). He is a bright and capable young man. Though he has a very short attention span he sees and takes note of everything around him.  He loves reporting on the activities of others (snitching) and has a broad understanding of human nature and actions.  He loves to wash our car and can be quite helpful.

  This is Sonia (nickname Chonita).   She is similar to Caralina in that she loves to help with washing dishes and folding laundry.  She also has terrific fine motor skills and is good at making, "Wipes" from cloth. Waipes are sold to car washes as absorbent cloth to wash and dry cars.   She also loves holding onto all sorts of knick knacks.   Like many she loves her costume jewelry and takes great pride brushing her hair.  She has an infectious and loud laugh that is a joy to hear.

This young man is Angel. He is quite talented physically and capable of productive work, particularly in the laundry.  He has limited communications skill, but is something of a gentle giant.  He is probably our fastest runner and often does well in the Special Olympics competitions.  After knowing him for many years, I still find him enigmatic.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Feral Child - Tarzan our very own Francisco Tzoy in a Spanish Newspaper in Catalonia

This is a raw translation by an automated software. Many typos ..



18/10/2015 01:32 h.
Two police officers patrolling a rural road in northern Guatemala on May 3, 2010. Suddenly they discover a strange creature in the undergrowth that fail to identify. It looks like a dog, a fox or a wolf. It is covered with hair, squatting rests and moves on all fours. It emits guttural sounds and snuggles to protect themselves when threatened. Agents do not imagine that in reality it is a boy of about 13 years, mentally disabled, who spent a decade wandering the mountains in the region of Quiche.
The child grew up alone. His parents died when he was three. The rest of her family disowned by their disability. To be alone and helpless, towards the "cloud forest" left. A few months later, the agents learned that his name was Francisco Tzoy.
The creature was the last wild child on the planet. "Wild child" or "feral" a creature that has been bred out of society is considered. The definition includes children who were abandoned or escaped inmates from home.
The word wild invited to think in an environment like the jungle. But there are feral children who were locked in cages.
There is no record that identifies feral children who have appeared throughout history. It is known that six cases have been identified since the start of the XXI century: three in Russia, one in Uganda, one in Cambodia and one in Fiji. Francisco is now the seventh and last.
Así era Francisco cuando lo encontraron.
That was when they found Francisco.

CHILD Tarzan

"Tarzan We have a child," the police told the hospital move Francisco to Santa Cruz. They handed him over to Norma Lizette Rivera, who finished the nurse caring for a year and a half.
"In my life I have seen strange cases but none like this. I think that is unique in the world, "said Rivera. "In the hospital we called The caveman child because her hair around her waist and walked on all fours."
He came malnourished. Almost could not move. He could not speak or walk upright. Wash it was almost impossible. "They got aggressive and did not want anyone to touch him," recalls the  asfeces.
nursecaregiver was hard to find that the child ate their own  "It is known that he was used to. He had grown up in the jungle without any human contact, so he had to be fed first thing was droppings."
"notonly ate their  It is also rubbed on them and spread throughout the room. Therefore it was necessary to isolate it. We could not leave with other patients.
"Thefirst thing the nurse was trying to find a relative who could take care of the child. That's how he discovered the dramatic story of the child.


Guatemala is one of the world's poorest countries. The region most affected by the civil war that ravaged the country for almost four decades is Quiche. There the most miserable areas are rural villages, where the indigenous population resides. One of the poorest Spot Parraxaj is where Franciscowas born.
Son of alcoholic parents, came into the worldIn a cabin after giving birth without medical assistance. "When a birth has many defects, it is not unusual that the baby will suffer some form of brain damage," the nurse Rivera.
It is estimated that Francis was born between 1997 and 1998 although no birth certificate to certify is not preserved. His father was called Reginio and died when he was about three years. His mother, Antonia Petrona, died a month later. Finding himself alone, the boy began to roam the forests. No one bothered him.
In the village more family members living but none was responsible for Francisco. "We were not able to take care of" his uncle Ricardo Tzoy, who still lives in the Place Parraxaj justified.
"The child was not right from birth. We failed technology, "attempts to explain Tzoy an almost illiterate person who says they tried to
care."What we washed and we put on clean clothes, "he explains. "At the time he escaped, he disappeared and became very dirty. In this village we are very poor and no potable water. We can not be for him because we went to work. Here you fight for life.
"Theboy spent long periods in the jungle. They believe in the hospital where he was looked after, eating leaves, roots and their own feces. When there was food, down to the village.
La enfermera Rivera.
The Rivera nurse. DAVID LOPEZ COLD

fought with the dogs

in the village nobody bet on the survival of children. "I thought he was dead," says one of the residents when I ask for it.
"I lived in the forest and sometimes stayed down and sleeping under trucks. He had neither father nor mother. Nobody cared. That poor child, "laments in a very rudimentary Castilian.
When asked why no one helped the small, starts talking in Quiche, the language used by the Indians.
The villagers they turn away. No child wants to talk like nobody wanted to shelter. In the hospital they had to be limited to throwing food scraps under a truck. There was fighting with dogs for the rest of the corn tortillas. Then returned to the jungle.
"As we explained in the village, the child did not go down very often," says Rivera nurse. "He spent most of his time in rural areas where the animals lived. When he reached the hospital, his skin was sunburned and numerous scars caused by branches and stones but not by an animal attack.

"One and a half in  hospital

the to rescue the child, the hospital was able to locate his family. "We warned the government or do not know where because I could not figure out a lot," says his uncle Ricardo. "We called and told them that if we should do a favor to care would be much better"small.
Uncle know his whereabouts and wants nothing  "While careful, stay where you are is. It is my pleasure to know it is OK, but not again because we can not keep.
"Thechild remained in the hospital in Santa Cruz del Quiche, where they washed, cut her hair and tried to educate him. "It was impossible," says Rivera nurse.
Another major battles that kept center staff with Francisco was related to clothing. "They took it off right away," says Rivera. "I've never needed it and as we were getting undressed dress."
It was an aggressive child was injured but often tearing tufts of hair. "His favorite entertainment was to break a garbage bag of nylon," recalls the nurse. "If I had more toys."
Francisco was one and a half at the hospital. "It's too long for our institution, which is not a specialized center for children with disabilities," says Rivera. "Sometimes we had to leave to attend to other patients to be with him. Descuidábamos others but we were with Francisco as long as required. There are no resources for everything.
"Everythingchanged when the Catalan NGO Life and Peace came in.

A Catalan saves

life i Pau is an NGO in Viladecavalls (Barcelona) working for 12 years exclusively in the region of El Quiché. Its founder and president is Josep Ibáñez (76 years) who came to visit the child at the request of the Attorney General's Office (PGN).
"We reported the existence of a wild child. Required a stay in a specialized center of the capital but no public funds to do so, "recalls Ibanez, who had already paid for the treatment of other sick children in northern
Guatemala."When I first saw it, they had isolated and put in a cage of glass. I went to touch and nurse warned me that it was full of excrement. It was scary and hard to approach him. It was taking off her clothes. Only sleeping on hard surfaces. On boards or on the ground. Le entertained giving pieces of bubble wrap, "recalls Ibanez, who returned to Spain moved the case by various means of Barcelona.
A musician called Lluís Wall Viladecavalls sensitized to the case. He donated an amount of money does not want to make public to enable the transfer of the child to the capital and afford treatment. Thus came the ABI Francisco in 2012, where it has evolved to its current state center.
Francisco, con su cordón rojo.
Francisco, with its red cord. DAVID LOPEZ COLD

a red cord

"and grabbed [hugs him from behind] and straightened," says Lorena Lopez caregiver to explain how he got that Francisco would walk upright. She is the person who spends the most time with him and who owes much of its evolution.
"When he got here, crawling like an animal and got a mouth on a plate to eat like a dog with his nose. Now walks upright and cutlery used for food, "says Stuart Sitaví, one of the educators of the center. The child has left to pull wisps of hair and rub their droppings. No longer injured or becomes aggressive when someone approaches.
The key is to keep quiet "you always have in your hands gives red without knots." Pita is the word used to describe Guatemalans to shoelaces.
Francisco has chosen his pita. It's your new distraction and his only friend. As you wake up, Lorena offers her red lace and  Franciscotaken.
calmlyis one of the few autonomous decisions  Discriminate her red lace and others of various colors. It is the replacement of the garbage bag and plastic bubble calming him at the hospital in Santa Cruz del Quiche. It gives red stroking and making stereotyped movements spends hours.
"Before realizing what we needed clung. We discovered it by chance. We gave a red cord injury and stopped, "recalls
Stuart."He has an IQ of five places it within the profound mental disabilities. In fact, his mental age is nine months, "explains Gabriela Rodriguez and Leslie Munoz, psychologists from the center. "No talking, just babble. That's why we try to stimulate the ear with musical instruments. She loves music.
"Lorena,Stuart, Leslie Gabriela and share their time each day with Francisco. Like Norma, his first caregiver, consider that Guatemala has reached its evolutionary stops.
"Encourage a person who is for him and constantly is needed and this requires money," match. But they also believe would be better elsewhere. "In a developed country, with adequate financial and personnel resources dedicated 24 hours a day to it, would be able to evolve much more," says Stuart Sitaví, who refuses to make a prediction: "I see no limit. The human being is made ​​to evolve and he is a human being but for much of his life has not treated as such.
"Here you can help the Catalan NGO Life and Peace.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Francisco Articulo in Spanish 


Dos agentes de policía patrullan por un camino rural del norte de Guatemala el 3 de mayo de 2010. De pronto descubren a una criatura extraña entre la maleza que no logran identificar. Parece un perro, un zorro o un lobo. Está cubierto de pelo, reposa en cuclillas y se desplaza a cuatro patas. Emite sonidos guturales y se acurruca para protegerse al sentirse amenazado. Los agentes no imaginan que en realidad se trata de un niño de unos 13 años, discapacitado psíquico, que lleva una década vagando por las montañas de la región del Quiché.
El niño se crió solo. Sus padres fallecieron cuando tenía tres años. El resto de su familia lo repudió por su discapacidad. Al encontrarse solo y desamparado, se fue rumbo a la llamada “selva nubosa”. Unos meses después, los agentes averiguaron que su nombre era Francisco Tzoy.
Aquella criatura era el último niño salvaje del planeta. Se considera “niño salvaje” o “feral” a una criatura que se ha criado fuera de la sociedad. La definición incluye a niños abandonados que fueron confinados o que se escaparon de su hogar.
La palabra salvaje invita a pensar en un medio como la selva. Pero hay niños ferales que fueron encerrados en jaulas.
No existe un registro que identifique a los niños salvajes que han aparecido a lo largo de la Historia. Sí se sabe que se han identificado seis casos desde que arrancó el siglo XXI: tres en Rusia, uno en Uganda, uno en Camboya y uno en las islas Fiji. Francisco es el séptimo y por ahora el último.
Así era Francisco cuando lo encontraron.
Así era Francisco cuando lo encontraron.


“Tenemos a un niño Tarzán”, dijeron los policías al trasladar a Francisco al hospital de Santa Cruz del Quiché. Se lo entregaron a Norma Lizette Rivera, la enfermera que lo acabó cuidando durante un año y medio.
“En mi vida he visto casos extraños pero ninguno como ese. Yo creo que es único en el mundo”, asegura Rivera. “En el hospital le llamábamos El niño cavernícola porque tenía el pelo por la cintura y caminaba a cuatro patas”.
Llegó desnutrido. Casi no se podía mover. No sabía hablar ni caminar erguido. Lavarlo era casi imposible. “Se ponía agresivo y no quería que nadie lo tocase”, recuerda la enfermera.
Lo más duro para la cuidadora fue descubrir que el niño se comía sus propias heces: “Se conoce que estaba acostumbrado a hacerlo. Se había criado en la selva sin ningún contacto humano, por lo que tenía que alimentarse con lo primero que encontraba”.
No sólo ingería sus excrementos: “También se restregaba en ellos y los esparcía por toda la habitación. Por eso hubo que aislarlo. No podíamos dejarlo con otros pacientes”.
Lo primero que hizo la enfermera fue intentar encontrar a un familiar que pudiese hacerse cargo del niño. Así fue como descubrió la dramática historia del pequeño.


Guatemala es uno de los países más pobres del mundo. La región más castigada por la guerra civil que azotó el país durante casi cuatro décadas es El Quiché. Allí las zonas más míseras son las aldeas rurales, donde reside la población indígena. Una de las más pobres es Paraje Parraxaj, donde nació Francisco.
Hijo de padres alcohólicos, vino al mundo en una cabaña tras un parto sin asistencia médica. “Cuando un alumbramiento tiene tantas anomalías, no es raro que el bebé sufra algún tipo de daño cerebral”, indica la enfermera Rivera.
Se calcula que Francisco nació entre 1997 y 1998 aunque no se conserva ninguna partida de nacimiento que lo certifique. Su padre se llamaba Reginio y falleció cuando él tenía unos tres años. Su madre, Antonia Petrona, murió un mes después. Al verse solo, el niño empezó a vagar por los bosques. Nadie se preocupó de él.
En la aldea viven más miembros de la familia pero ninguno se hizo responsable de Francisco. “No fuimos capaces de cuidarlo”, se justifica su tío Ricardo Tzoy, que sigue viviendo en el Paraje Parraxaj.
“El niño no estaba bien desde su nacimiento. Le fallaba la tecnología”, intenta explicar Tzoy, una persona casi analfabeta que asegura que lo intentaron cuidar.
“Lo lavábamos y le poníamos ropa limpia”, explica. “Al rato se escapaba, desaparecía y volvía muy sucio. En esta aldea somos muy pobres y no hay agua potable. No podemos estar por él porque salimos a trabajar. Aquí se lucha por la vida”.
El niño pasaba largas temporadas en la selva. Según creen en el hospital donde lo cuidaron, comía hojas, raíces y sus propias heces. Cuando no encontraba alimento, bajaba al poblado.
La enfermera Rivera.
La enfermera Rivera. 


En la aldea nadie apostaba por la supervivencia del niño. “Yo pensé que estaba muerto”, reconoce una de las vecinas cuando le pregunto por él.
“Vivía en el bosque y a veces bajaba y se quedaba durmiendo debajo de los camiones. No tenía padre ni madre. Nadie lo cuidaba. Pobrecito ese niño”, lamenta en un castellano muy rudimentario.
Cuando se le pregunta por qué nadie ayudó al pequeño, se pone a hablar en quiché, la lengua que usan los indígenas.
Los habitantes de la aldea se desentienden. Nadie quiere hablar del niño igual que nadie quiso darle cobijo. En el hospital contaban que se limitaban a arrojarle sobras de comida debajo de un camión. Allí se peleaba con los perros por los restos de las tortillas de maíz. Luego volvía a la selva.
“Según nos explicaron en la aldea, el niño no bajaba muy a menudo”, explica la enfermera Rivera. “Pasaba la mayor parte de su tiempo en las áreas rurales donde convivía con los animales. Cuando llegó al hospital, tenía la piel quemada por el sol y numerosas cicatrices provocadas por ramas y piedras pero no por el ataque de un animal”.


Al rescatar al niño, el hospital logró localizar a su familia. “Nos avisaron del Gobierno o no sé de dónde porque yo no me enteraba mucho”, reconoce su tío Ricardo. “Nos llamaron y les dijimos que si nos hiciesen el favor de cuidarlo sería mucho mejor”.
El tío desconoce su paradero y no quiere saber nada del pequeño: “Si está bien cuidado, que se quede donde está. Para mí es un gusto saber que está bien, pero que no vuelva porque no podemos mantenerlo”.
El niño se quedó en el hospital de Santa Cruz del Quiché, donde lo lavaron, le cortaron el pelo e intentaron educarlo. “Era imposible”, dice la enfermera Rivera.
Otra de las grandes batallas que mantuvo el personal del centro con Francisco fue la relacionada con la ropa. “Se la quitaba enseguida”, dice Rivera. “Nunca la había necesitado y se desnudaba en cuanto conseguíamos vestirlo”.
No era un niño agresivo pero se lesionaba a menudo arrancándose mechones de pelo. “Su entretenimiento preferido era romper una bolsa de basura de nylon”, recuerda la enfermera. “Le hacía más caso que a los juguetes”.
Francisco estuvo un año y medio en aquel hospital. “Es demasiado tiempo para nuestra institución, que no es un centro especializado para niños con discapacidad”, dice Rivera. “A veces teníamos que dejar de atender a otros pacientes para estar con él. Descuidábamos a los demás pero no estábamos con Francisco todo el tiempo que requería. No hay recursos para todo”.
Todo cambió cuando entró en escena la ONG catalana Vida i Pau.


Vida i Pau es una ONG de Viladecavalls (Barcelona) que trabaja desde hace 12 años exclusivamente en la región de El Quiché. Su fundador y presidente es Josep Ibáñez (76 años), que fue a visitar al niño ante la petición de la Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN).
“Nos comunicaron la existencia de un niño salvaje. Requería un internamiento en un centro especializado de la capital pero no había fondos públicos destinados a hacerlo”, recuerda Ibáñez, que ya había costeado el tratamiento de otros niños enfermos del norte de Guatemala.
“Cuando lo vi por primera vez, lo tenían aislado y metido en una especie de jaula de cristal. Fui a tocarlo y la enfermera me advirtió de que estaba lleno de excrementos. Era asustadizo y costaba acercarse a él. Se seguía quitando la ropa. Sólo se dormía en superficies duras. Sobre unas tablas o en el suelo. Le entretenían dándole trozos de plástico con burbujas”, recuerda Ibáñez, que al volver a España movió el caso por varios medios de la provincia de Barcelona.
Un músico de Viladecavalls llamado Lluís Muro se sensibilizó con el caso. Donó una cantidad de dinero que no quiere hacer pública para hacer posible el traslado del niño a la capital y costear su tratamiento. Así llegó Francisco en 2012 al Centro ABI, donde ha evolucionado hasta su estado actual.
Francisco, con su cordón rojo.
Francisco, con su cordón rojo. 


“Lo agarro así [lo abraza por detrás] y lo enderezo”, dice la cuidadora Lorena López al explicar cómo consiguió que Francisco caminase erguido. Ella es la persona que pasa la mayor parte del tiempo con él y a quien le debe gran parte de su evolución.
“Cuando llegó aquí, se arrastraba como un animalito y metía la boca en el plato para comer como hacen los perros con el hocico. Ahora ya camina erguido y usa cubiertos para alimentarse”, dice Estuardo Sitaví, uno de los educadores del centro. El niño ha dejado de arrancarse jirones de pelo y de restregarse con sus excrementos. Ya no se lesiona ni se pone agresivo cuando alguien se le acerca.
La clave para mantenerlo tranquilo es “que tenga siempre en las manos su pita roja y sin nudos”. Pita es la palabra que usan los guatemaltecos para denominar a los cordones de los zapatos.
Francisco ha elegido su pita. Es su nueva distracción y su único amigo. En cuanto se despierta, Lorena le ofrece su cordón rojo y Francisco se calma.
Es una de las pocas decisiones autónomas que toma: discriminar su cordón rojo entre otros de varios colores. Es el sustituto de la bolsa de basura y de los plásticos de burbuja que le calmaban en el hospital de Santa Cruz del Quiché. Acariciando la pita roja y haciendo movimientos estereotipados pasa las horas.
“Antes de percatarnos de lo que necesitaba se pegaba. Lo descubrimos de forma casual. Le dimos un cordón rojo y dejó de lesionarse”, rememora Estuardo.
“Tiene un cociente intelectual de cinco que lo sitúa dentro de la discapacidad mental profunda. De hecho, su edad mental es de nueve meses”, explican Gabriela Rodríguez y Leslie Muñoz, las psicólogas del centro. “No habla, sólo balbucea. Por eso le intentamos estimular el oído con instrumentos musicales. Le gusta mucho la música”.
Lorena, Estuardo, Gabriela y Leslie comparten cada día su tiempo con Francisco. Al igual que Norma, su primera cuidadora, consideran que en Guatemala ha alcanzado su tope evolutivo.
“Se necesita una persona que le estimule y esté por él constantemente y para eso hace falta dinero”, coinciden. Pero también creen estaría mejor en otro sitio. “En un país desarrollado, con suficientes recursos económicos y personal dedicado 24 horas al día a él, sería capaz de evolucionar mucho más”, asegura Estuardo Sitaví, que se niega a hacer una predicción: “Yo no le veo límite. El ser humano está hecho para evolucionar y él es un ser humano aunque durante gran parte de su vida no lo hayan tratado como tal”.
Aquí puedes ayudar a la ONG catalana Vida i Pau.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A pleasant morning- Typical day in the garden

   These are the teachers-aides working with the children in Jardin Encantado in the morning.
They are proactively stimulating and engaging the children. The sunshine helps.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Physical Education - Out in the neigborhood for some exercise

. . Some of the big kids out and about... Since I live two blocks from the center the kids walk past my house when they are going for exercise. It's great for the kids to be out and see normal life. It is also good for the neighbors and society at large to be aware of special needs people.

Monday, May 25, 2015

                                 Happy 33rd Birthday Griselda Sanchez!!

   Griselda is a wonderful kind and warm young woman. She is pictured here with our Director Dr. Roberto Martinez.  She is always asking when we are going to celebrate her birthday and Christmas. Thus, Roberto made an extra effort to join in her celebration today.  She is quite personable and would thrive in foster care or a group home.  She is more intelligent than many of our residents, so she is  not really technically part of our identified profile. Unfortunately, she has no family and there are no other options in the country to help her live an even more independent and fulfilling life.  Please pray for her and her continued happiness.

Griselda with Cowboy Pajaro.  The young man is named Jose Luis and his nickname is Pajaro (parakeet) because of his high pitched voice.  He has a great sense of humor and is always eager for adventure and diversions.  Like Griselda, he asks year round when is Christmas. 

It's all about the People !

  We have some wonderful and committed staff.

     This is Marie Eugenia called Jenny.  She is our team leader and has been working with us for almost three years. Last year she had some health issues and surgery. During her recovery period she worked as a helper at the school  Precious Moments in Santa Fe.   Her flexibility and adaptability impressed us all. Upon her return working with us we determined that it was time to give her the promotion and let her leadership qualities shine.

Griselda Lopez is our longest standing aide. She is amazing. She works incredibly hard with the wheelchair kids and is always calm and focused.  She helps with other projects on her days off. She has two little girls and has a long daily commute. On top of all her other skills she is an excellent cook. 

This is Silvia Ninett. She is our newest team member. She has two children and enormous patience with our kids. 

      This is Silvia Gonzalez. She is relatively new, but has an amazing gift for working with children with disabilities.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

El Arca and the original "'Arch'e" article in Wall Street Journal

  We are trying to launch a small residental  home for some of our young adults. We are in planning stages and discussions to create a group home for six of our most independent and least medically complicated friends who currently live in ABI.  Though we are not part of the L'Arche communities, we are looking at their model for structuring and best practices.
  The main obstacles to launching El Arca relate to medical treatments and daytime educational programming.  Please pray we find a way to overcome these challenges.

  Here is the article from the Wall Street Journal that ran on Easter-

"The Gift of Living With the Not    Gifted"

Trosly-Breuil, France
It’s lunchtime at the Ferns, a group home about an hour northeast of Paris, and the smell of fried fish wafts through the rooms. The food is typical French fare, but the dozen or so diners are anything but typical. The Ferns is part of L’Arche, or the Ark, a global community of people with mental disabilities and their nondisabled peers who live together as equals, as the organization’s founder, Jean Vanier,says he was called by faith to do. 
Residents at the Ferns are among the most severely disabled in the local L’Arche chapter. There is Jorge, a young man with motor dysfunction who expresses himself with grunts. Loïc, in his 60s, has the body of a small child but the facial wrinkles and missing teeth of an old man. His language consists of piercing screams. Then there is Emilie, a gregarious, wheelchair-bound young woman with an infectious smile.
“Emilie would like you to know that she speaks English,” says the community’s director, who serves as my interpreter and guide, passing along the voluble resident’s fanciful messages. “Emilie would like you to know that she helped cook today’s lunch.” “Emilie would like you to know that she recently attended a concert in Paris by Grégoire” (a French pop singer).
All the grunting, screams and chatter meld to form an uncommon orchestra as more residents gather to eat. Then we hold hands and sing: “Bless the Lord, you, God’s servants, / All of you who live in God’s house, / Lift up your hands to the Holy Lord / Proclaim God’s greatness and the power of God’s name. Amen.”
Eating at a L’Arche house can be discomfiting if you’re a stickler for table manners. There is much spitting, spilling and gurgling. But gradually the discomfort melts away, and the residents draw you into their world, unhindered by politeness or social rank. That’s the point of the place: to understand what it means to be human in all its imperfect forms, and to mark human dignity where it is least physically obvious. 
The nondisabled residents at L’Arche include both seminarians and secular spiritual seekers, many of them young, who will spend months or even decades there. At a house for the severely disabled, like the Ferns, there are almost as many of these assistants, as the nondisabled are called, as there are residents with disabilities.
Mr. Vanier, a Canadian theologian and philosopher, founded the first L’Arche community in 1964. It has since grown into an international federation of 147 communities on five continents. Mr. Vanier was awarded this year’s $1.7 million Templeton Prize, which honors individuals who make “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions.”
Mr. Vanier, who is 86, has retired from day-to-day management, but he still lives in the original community in Trosly-Breuil, in a modest house next to a chapel, not far from the Ferns. Well over 6 feet tall, the former naval officer has the bearing of a gentle giant, with bushy brows, large ears and kind eyes. Dressed in a windbreaker and dusty corduroy trousers, he is reluctant to talk about himself.
“Don’t push me up,” he says in a voice that rarely rises above a whisper. “I’m always frightened. Because what I’m trying to live and trying to say is that people with disabilities are important—in themselves but also they have a message to give to humanity. I’m talking about going down to the bottom and listening to the bottom, which has something to say.”
What Mr. Vanier hears today fills him with both hope and anguish about the place of these people in today’s world.
He acknowledges that “there’s a desire to respect” people with disabilities, which reflects progress after centuries of persecution. “In the Gospel of St. John we hear the disciples asking Jesus about a man who was born blind: Why was he born blind? Was it because of his sins or the sins of his parents?” In other words, he says, “the idea was that disability was a punishment from God. And now we are saying at L’Arche that people with disabilities are a way to God. So the world is evolving.”
Yet Mr. Vanier also sees people with disabilities being compelled to adopt the aspirations of the nondisabled. “There’s a tendency of being happy because they’re winning—the Paralympics, working at McDonald’s and so on,” he says. Labor is a central element of life at L’Arche, where residents learn everything from candle making to pottery to bee farming. But, Mr. Vanier warns, if we only celebrate people with disabilities insofar as they’re like us, this risks overshadowing the gifts of these “people of the heart.”
“What people with disabilities want is to relate,” Mr. Vanier says. “This is something unique. It makes people who are closed up in the head become human. The wonderful thing about people with disabilities is that when someone important comes, they don’t care. They care about the relationship. So they have a healing power, a healing power of love.”
That power permeates L’Arche, but in the world outside, threats to human difference and the dignity of the disabled are proliferating. Prenatal screening has meant that a majority of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, though some recent studies suggest the termination rate is declining. Advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering will make parents and physicians more likely to attempt to “design” away disabilities, to create perfect babies.
But biotech-aided parenting will be a messy business, Mr. Vanier warns. “They want to have babies according to what they want,” he notes. “But, boy, they’re going to have trouble when that boy grows up to be an adolescent and says, ‘I don’t want to be what mummy and daddy want!’ ”
Unhindered biotechnology, moreover, risks alienating man from man. The L’Arche movement, Mr. Vanier says, “is about the discovery of the Word became flesh. Jesus was a human being, with a human face, and taught us through the way he lived how to meet people.” But we are now entering a “virtual world,” he worries, “where we’re frightened of meeting people” as they are, even though what they are is what makes them human. 
“Everything is about coming together,” he says, “through the eyes, through the face, through the hands, through the imperfections, with all that is beautiful and all that is painful.”
Jean Vanier was born in 1928 in Geneva, where his father served in the Canadian diplomatic corps. In 1939 his father became the Canadian envoy in Paris, and when German troops advanced on France the next year, the Vaniers made a narrow escape to Britain and from there back to Canada. But Mr. Vanier wasn’t done with Europe.
“At the age of 13,” he recalls, “I heard that there was a school for the future officers of the British Navy, and something rose up within me. I knew I had to go.” At the Royal Naval College the young Mr. Vanier was both a foreigner and a Roman Catholic in a Protestant environment. 
“There is that little compass within each one of us where we know what is right, what is just, what is good, what is true.” Less than a decade later, Mr. Vanier abandoned a military career to follow the little compass elsewhere.
“Because I believed in the Gospel values, I felt called to leave the navy to follow Jesus,” he recalls. “For me to follow Jesus was to announce the good news to the poor.” Eventually he returned to France, where he began studying with a Dominican priest, Father Thomas Philippe.
After earning a doctorate on Aristotelian ethics from the Catholic Institute in Paris in 1962, Mr. Vanier began lecturing on both sides of the Atlantic. Father Thomas, meanwhile, became chaplain at an institution for the mentally disabled in Trosly-Breuil and urged Mr. Vanier to visit. 
“I discovered this world,” Mr. Vanier recalls. “People locked up in institutions. Parents feeling ashamed, pained.” At an institution near Paris, he saw 80 men locked up in a building meant for 40. Violence and abuse were rampant. Elsewhere he saw a teenager chained in a garage.
“What do you do when you see something like that?” asks Mr. Vanier. His answer was to purchase a small house in Trosly-Breuil and invite two disabled men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave an institution near Paris and live with him as friends.
Raphael only knew 20 words and didn’t speak very much. “Whereas Philippe spoke too much,” Mr. Vanier says with a smile. “The great thing about people with intellectual disabilities is that they’re not people who discuss philosophy. . . . What they want is fun and laughter, to do things together and fool around, and laughter is at the heart of community.”
The men bought a trick mustard pot with a spring in the lid that would jump out when opened. “Raphael, he loved that,” Mr. Vanier recalls. One day a state inspector visited the house, and Raphael “would push the mustard pot, inch it forward toward the inspector, and he finally opened it—and there was laughter! That was at the heart of everything. After long years of being looked down upon, being seen as stupid, they were finding a place of freedom and happiness.”
L’Arche grew quickly, drawing strength from the spirit of the 1960s. Communities sprang up in India, Egypt, Honduras and beyond. “It was a propitious time,” Mr. Vanier says. “Everyone wanted community. People were angry against authority.” There was ferment also within the Catholic Church thanks to the Second Vatican Council, and spiritual seekers descended on Trosly-Breuil. Without Mr. Vanier’s and Father Thomas’s philosophical vision, however, L’Arche would likely have withered away like many a hippie commune did.
With growth came a degree of professionalization and greater state oversight of the houses and the care provided to residents. Though this meant losing some of the original spontaneity, Mr. Vanier has for the most part welcomed the change. Life at L’Arche is never easy, even with the added assistance of psychiatrists and social workers. 
“L’Arche teaches us also the difficulty in meeting the poor,” Mr. Vanier says. “Some have been too hurt, some have psychological problems. And so here we’re called to be very attentive to the needs of the other.” This is the challenge that has proved attractive to thousands of nondisabled people. 
But what about those who can’t take years off to serve? “Try and find somebody who is lonely,” Mr. Vanier says. “And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say ‘but that’s nothing.’ It is nothing—but it’s also everything.” He adds: “It always begins with small little things. It all began in Bethlehem. That was pretty small.”
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial-page writer based in London."

Excerpts quoted here without permission from publisher