hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

February 1, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: How sweet home at Irenicon

Tom Vartabedian

Home is where the heart is, or so the saying goes. For us, it's a comfort zone — a place to hang our hats and coats, settle into a cozy atmosphere of peace and tranquility, and bring us a sense of gratitude when you consider the alternative.

Such a settlement is L'Arche Irenicon, a home for developmentally disabled adults who otherwise might be institutionalized or worse yet, homeless. Internationally, L'Arche is in more than 135 communities.

In Haverhill, nestled within a neighborhood setting, are four of these homes. I could easily call them comfort zones or as the logo reads: "Homes of Hope."

It is where residents or core members come for a sense of security, growth, purpose and well-being. You would never know it by their quiet presence, but Irenicon's longevity in this city is approaching three decades.

Just for the sake of curiosity, I attended an open house at the Nazorean Home in Bradford and was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. I did not expect every city and state politician worth his salt to be there. I doubt it was the coffee and doughnuts that attracted them.

Perhaps they shared a similar intuition as I. Curiosity, yes, but in reality, a chance to view a highly successful operation that gives group homes such as these a place in the sun with a rainbow overhead.

I was there for another reason. To visit a young woman whom I've known practically since birth. Her name is Rose Rurak and she's a bundle of joy. Her smile could easily radiate a room.

As a Gazette photographer, I noticed she always seemed to find my lens, whether it was at Girls Incorporated, the Haverhill YMCA, our local schools or simply mixing it up with others. Rose had a perfect place at this meeting right next to her mom, Kathy.

A sign above was all the welcome you needed: "God bless this home and all who enter."

The Ruraks — Jim, our former mayor, and wife Kathy, an educator — have been golden as parents to Rose and the disability she has managed very well. They didn't have to say a word, but you could feel their sense of relief and composure knowing their daughter was on her own adopting an independent lifestyle. It's what any parent in their situation would cherish.

"I can't tell you how comforting it is to know that regardless of what might happen to Jim and myself, Rose will always have a home surrounded by caring and thoughtful people," Kathy tells us. "At the heart of L'Arche is the belief that people with disabilities have valuable lessons to impart with everybody they meet: Primarily love and spontaneity, which makes them true teachers of the heart."

Amen!

At 21, Rose is the youngest of 16 residents inside the four city homes, complemented by a staff of 20 led by Executive Director Swanna Champlin, who's been aboard 10 years. A $1.7 million budget is met with diligence, 60 percent of it state subsidized and the remainder through Social Security and fund-raising.

A "Taste of Spring" restaurant tasting and charity auction will take place April 10 at Renaissance Golf Club. Check out the website: www.larcheirenicon.org.

At the opposite extreme are core members like 61-year-old Judith Longval with 19 years at Irenicon. She keeps the place tidy, answers the phone and keeps the office humming. One day she'll be playing the violin and another day the piano. A song and dance are also part of her social extremity.

People like Judy are no strangers to newcomers here — but a friend waiting to be introduced. She talks a good talk, too.

"It's not only my home, but everyone's home," she says. "I don't have an immediate family, but this is my family here. We all help one another and work out our problems together."

While some may call it a group home, members prefer to think of it as an individual place. Rooms are personal and private. And all the right amenities are in place. Interaction becomes a requisite.

Neighbors have been more than receptive, taking time to visit and offer their help when needed. While some assist with yard work, others will give a hand with arts and crafts.

On a typical day, residents rise and shine at 5:30 a.m., tend to their personal needs, enjoy a hearty breakfast and are out the door to their day programs. In Rose's case, she's off to Coastal Connections in Amesbury, a program that deals with continuing education and alternates her time with the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce and YWCA.

In her own inimitable way, Rose Rurak reached out to all those who welcomed her here and others who had come to visit.

"It's very nice," she was quick to say, "very special."

No other words were necessary. Her pleasing smile spoke volumes.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.