Community Papers

Couple established Comox Valley L’Arche residence

Lock and Joanne Mawhinney founded L
Lock and Joanne Mawhinney founded L'Arche Comox Valley.
— image credit: PHOTO SUBMITTED

Wendy Dyck


This is the second in a series of articles that will explore the nature on developmental disability, its impact on the lives of many in our community and the resources available to help them reach their fullest potential.

Developmental disabilities cause difficulties in language, mobility and learning that begin at birth.

Some of our biggest steps forward as a community have been in finding ways to accommodate children with developmental disabilities in our school system. Special-needs education has developed with individually tailored learning strategies, accessible settings and educators who have trained specifically to help these learners achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency and success in school.

One such educator was Lock Mawhinney, who worked for 32 years in the Comox Valley School District. Mawhinney was an innovator and, alongside his colleagues, worked tirelessly for the integration of the developmentally disabled into the broader schooling community.

While the successes of his efforts were apparent, Mawhinney realized that once disabled students left school, they were back on the sidelines, lacking meaningful relationships with the community outside their own homes.

Somewhere, Mawhinney stumbled upon the work of Jean Vanier, a Canadian living in France who developed a model of unique communities he called L’Arche — French for The Ark.

These communities were comprised of both the developmentally disabled and the able, the young and the old; rejecting institutional values and replacing them with authentic human relationships. At the heart of L’Arche was the idea of “mutuality” — that being in a relationship with a person with a disability could be mutually enriching.

Mawhinney was inspired by what he saw and with his wife, Joanne, determined to establish a L’Arche residence and program in the Comox Valley. This was easier said than done — Mawhinney had a full-time job, a 10-acre farm, and he and his wife had eight children — four with developmental disabilities whom they had welcomed into their family.

The Mawhinneys rallied their friends, talked to churches, service clubs and any group that would listen and, over the course of several years, raised the money to buy a modest house.

With 3,000 hours of volunteer help, that house was transformed into a welcoming home and in 2000 first resident Cory Pagnoni arrived from Tahsis. Within a few months, three more “core people” — as those with a disability are called — had joined, along with three assistants to live in a family-like setting.

The Mawhinneys created a community of friends and neighbours who embraced the “core people” and included them in their lives. Many more people — with and without developmental disabilities — were drawn into the vibrant community life and to further accommodate their gathering, an arts outreach facility was established.

Mawhinney did not see his efforts as “a good thing to do” but rather as a “deep and sometimes troubling urging to respond to an invitation” to be authentic human beings. He saw the community that included developmentally disabled people as “a sacred gift meant for the Comox Valley.”

In 2010, Mawhinney began work on a book about the L’Arche community in the Comox Valley and it was nearing completion when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was able to see his book published before his death in February 2012. He is missed to this day.

Wendy Dyck is a musician and freelance writer working in the Comox Valley since 2001. She is also an editor with seven books, both fiction and non-fiction, to her credit.

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