A few years ago, I decided to be more committed in my life in service of others. I joined Saint Martin Catholic Social Action, a group dedicated to help the disadvantaged in society based in Nyahururu, in Central Kenya. There I took up the role of Public Relations manager. With time, I decided to dedicate myself full time to L’Arche, an offshoot of Saint Martin dedicated solely to people with intellectual disabilities.
In 2002, Saint Martin founded Marleen Crafts; the project’s aim was to empower economically people with different kinds of disabilities or disadvantaged in society. We welcomed people with HIV/AIDS, people with physical disability, survivor of domestic violence, parents of potential street children … At Marleen Crafts, people had the chance to learn a craft and produce objects that were later sold in our shop or through other outlets. The shop sells to tourists but also to local customers. We have contacted tourist companies and some do bring their clients to see our shop. We also give our production to shops in Nairobi and hotels in other locations.
When L’Arche was founded in 2008, we needed to offer occupational therapy to our people; we started involving them in small workshops making candles, baking biscuits, and doing little crafts. These workshops of L’Arche were taking place at Marleen Crafts.
By 2010, the people with mental disabilities coming to the project were more than the original beneficiaries of Saint Martin working here. The two organizations realized that it would be wiser to give l’Arche Kenya direct control of the management of this project. Marleen Grafts now welcomes people who need occupational therapy but also accommodates beneficiaries of Saint Martin in two workshops, i.e. leather work and wood carving.
People who work here are remunerated in different ways. Those working in leather and carving are paid for each peace produced. Those who come here for occupational therapy are not paid, but what they produce is used for their upkeep. Ten of them live in our communities, six of them with their parents. All this is done in a transparent manner; the families are informed about our method and see how we fund our project. In reality, the income from these projects is very little and we need external funding to run our houses.
This project meets it first objective, which is not financial gain. We provide opportunity for people who live difficult life. In the leatherwork we have people who now can have a regular income. Some used to live a reckless life, others had lost hope in a change for the better and they just waited to die. Some who survived domestic violence now are independent. They work, produce and are the agents of their own income. So we provide hope, we met our objective.
In regard to people with intellectual disabilities, there could not be better tool. This project gives us an opportunity to involve them in some work and show their talents. They are not confined to their homes or our communities. They come here every day, see other people, and interact with the outside world. In this way, they are not kept away from society, but are part of it. I do not know how else this could be done.
L’Arche Kenya is a child of Saint Martin, it was founded out of the experience of the project for people with disabilities. Saint Martin empowers the community to help people live their life to the full. L’Arche Kenya strives to be a sign in the community, a sign that it is possible to live with people with intellectual disabilities, and involve them in all the activities we can think of. So we are complimentary to Saint Martin. We do not only talk about these matters, but live and involve these people in our lives.
I used to go out for awareness programs with parents of children with disabilities. We were saying that these children are not a curse, they are a blessing. Parents were asking us if we knew what it meant to live with one of them. Now we can show that yes, we know. In fact, we live with them. Our lifestyle is an example to those parents who were afraid to socialize with their children. They now go around with them, they go out shopping, they go to church. We do not duplicate Saint Martin’s work, but we are complimentary to each other.