Sister Pat Dowling: Using her Gifts to Teach Others at L'Arche
Sister Pat Dowling has spent over 20 years in ministry in two L'Arche communities in Honduras. Since 2003, she's used that experience in her ongoing visits to individuals who are challenged and also to train assistants who provide care and companionship to people with intellectual disabilities. She tells how the most important lesson for all of us to learn is that the people we 'help' are teaching us and bringing their own gifts, gifts that our society has great need for.
She teaches assistants that the most important thing is their mutual relationship with the intellectually challenged person and the importance of listening to the person's way of communicating through body language, facial expressions and signs to respond to their wishes when they cannot use words. She also offers courses and serves as an example on how to help raise the self-worth of those they live with or assist by encouraging autonomy.
"I've been at L'Arche long enough to transmit this attitude," she says.
She shares a photograph where an assistant, Lelis, is putting skin cream on a woman's arm. However, Sandra, not Lelis, is the one to rub the cream into her own arm. This is not to exclude the importance of communicating by touch to show care for the other person.
Another example is when Sister Pat helps a woman named Erika bathe. "I don't bathe Erika," she explains. "I accompany her. Erika does as much as Erika can do. I help with what she can't."
Sister Pat knows this encourages some independence in people living with disabilities. This can be further realized in productivity workshops where they can make hammocks, mops, coffee and other items that can be sold for income. This is a service to those who need to buy these products and contributes to a healthier self-esteem for those who make them.
Most of Sister Pat's assistants-in-training are volunteers who want to serve and learn new skills or students devoting their spare time. A trainee starts by spending a week observing experienced assistants at work. Gradually, the trainee receives responsibilities such as workshops and chores. They're encouraged to look for tasks and get involved.
One volunteer activity is her weekly half-hour radio broadcast, where Sister Pat's own words or those of people she invites can reach as far as the distant mountains where no resources are available. She voices how children with disabilities must receive discipline. They can learn acceptable behaviour and must be spoken to and involved in all decisions concerning them. "If a boy hits someone and his parents let it go because he's different, he might think he's not worth attention." The consequences of unacceptable behaviour should be the same for him as well as his brothers.
Sister Pat admits she isn't perfect. She was in the kitchen making dinner with Melvin, a man who had difficulty using his hands. Melvin wasn't wearing an apron, so Sister Pat put one on him. She regretted it. "I should've said, 'Melvin, we both need aprons. Can you get yours?" She continues, "He wouldn't have been able to tie it, so I should have let him put it on himself, then ask him if he needed me to tie it."
She states these errors immediately and in front of the assistants-in-training so that they might avoid same mistakes. She made sure to ask Melvin, "What should we make for dinner?" She wanted to offer him the choice and know that his decisions are taken into account.
"You are the owner of your life," she says.
by Ibrahim Ng