Johnny Olson breaks into a grin as he shows off his room, located just off the kitchen in his neatly kept group home in downtown Clinton.

"See!" he says, gesturing to a giant model of Elvis Presley, strumming a guitar and mounted on the ceiling of the room that carries all sorts of memorabilia of Olson's favorite performer.

Olson is one of 18 adult residents, called "core members" in the L'Arche community in Clinton. Also named The Arch, it is a local chapter of L'Arche International, an organization of 130 communities in 30 countries, founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier of Trosly-Breuil, France.

Vanier, now 84, is this year's recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace & Freedom Award, presented annually by the Diocese of Davenport. He is being honored for 50 years of working for the total acceptance of people as they are, with and without disabilities.

L'Arche differs from other types of housing for people with special needs, as there is a heavy emphasis on faith, and many workers consider their jobs more of a vocation. Assistants may live right in the homes and be part of a family, sharing love, respect and support.

"It's as if we live out the Gospel," Sister Maria Zeimen said. Zeimen, a Franciscan nun, has been acting as interim director, or "community leader" at L'Arche, until the recent hiring of Pamela Hoogheem of Davenport.

L'Arche in Clinton has existed for 40 years, and now includes three homes and four apartments. The 18 core members are helped by 18 assistants, who are paid to assist those with mental disabilities. There is a central office staff and a number of volunteers also attached to the organization.

Justin Lorenz, a 26-year-old from the L'Arche organization in St. Louis, helped out this summer as the live-in assistant in Olson's home. He notes Olson's smile, and says this is what he enjoys about living in the home.

"It's learning to live with and grow relationships with everyone here," Lorenz said. "It's some struggle but there is a lot of joy. The L'Arche spirit is to recognize our humanity, and learning to love each other despite our weaknesses."

Background of movement

Vanier found his calling in the 1960s, after he was influenced by the Gospels and by social activists such as Dorothy Day. He moved into a small stone house in Trosley with Phillippe and Raphael, who had previously lived in an institution. Vanier later noted the timing of his life's work, as people with special needs were being moved out of institutions around the world.

The philosopher, writer and man of prayer named his venture L'Arche, the French word for ark, which connected it to the Gospel story of Noah's Ark.

In the early 1970s, Sister Marjorie Wisor, a Franciscan nun from Clinton, worked for a year at L'Arche in France, and returned to Iowa to start the local chapter. Sites in Davenport were first considered for the program, but a Presbyterian church in Clinton offered organizers the free use of a residence located next to the church.

Homes, Zeimen explained, are kept up by residents. They clean, cook, eat, pray and sing together, she explained. Zeimen is now retired and lives in Chicago, but she spent years working for L'Arche and founded the Chicago chapter 14 years ago.

New community leader

Hoogheem, a native of Canada, is the former associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Davenport. She learned about L'Arche in Clinton after she attended a program at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat, near Wheatland, Iowa.

Hoogheem enjoys the new direction in her life. "There is a unique community here. The living together aspect of it, the family that is created when people come together from various backgrounds. We have something that unites us," she said. "It is not just a job, but a calling," she said.

Many people know of L'Arche because of the work of Henri J.M. Nouwen, a priest who lived for 10 years in a L'Arche community near Toronto, Canada. Nouwen wrote well-known books related to L'Arche, including one about a core member called "Adam, God's Beloved."

The Franciscan sisters of Clinton greatly support L'Arche, Zeimen said; 14 sisters have worked in some capacity at the organization. The sisters join others who are greeting the award for Vanier with joy and enthusiasm.

"Mostly we are excited, and happy to see so many people are interested in Jean Vanier, and L'Arche," Zeimen added.

At least 50 members of L'Arche communities will attend the Pacem in Terris event on Sunday, coming from Clinton as well as communities in Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis.