At our January 2016 board retreat (facilitated by Tom Soma, a seasoned nonprofit leader), a goal emerged to explore how to support someone with ID at the board level. A month later, a cohort reviewed the L’Arche USA business plan, and Frances Sexton raised many good questions in conversation. Frances, who has ID, has never lived in a L’Arche home but has been involved since our founding. Discerning Frances’ leadership, the executive committee agreed she might be a candidate to break new ground.
With feedback from L’Arche International, we identified key components for welcoming someone with ID: freedom of choice, autonomy in decision-making, and accommodations to access materials. We talked separately to Tom and to Frances about board service. Introducing them over coffee, executive director Andrew Noethe invited them to join as a pair – one steeped in L’Arche values, the other seasoned in nonprofit leadership. Both had something to give and to learn – a truly mutual opportunity.
A year into their journey, Frances and Tom have made this experiment an unqualified success. Frances is a valuable board member and active meeting participant. She comes prepared, asks great questions, is proud of her service, and exudes enthusiasm for the cause. She is literate, which helps her understanding of written reports, and outgoing, which puts everyone at ease. But Frances’ greatest gifts are her fearlessness and vision. Says Tom, “Frances really inspires me. She has a level of boldness that is very refreshing.”
Frances’ dream for L’Arche is rooted in her personal experience of being tangentially involved but unable to access the full experience of shared home life. Her vision encompasses communal spiritual, work, and gathering space, a variety of living options, dinners and dances with friends, beautiful gardens, and so much more. It is more comprehensive and fully inclusive than anything we have managed to achieve thus far. Frances’ vision is the epitome of what L’Arche can look like, if we think differently. If we think bigger.
Tom’s commitment has truly helped Frances share her vision and leadership. Before each meeting, he picks Frances up from her apartment. Over dinner, they review the board agenda and supplementary materials. Tom simplifies the financials. He sits next to her at meetings so she can ask questions, which he answers or helps her reframe for the larger group. As Tom reiterates, “that is no different than the mentoring I give to new board members in my own organization.”
As to what each receives from the other, Frances and Tom couldn’t be more clear. Without the hook of partnering with Frances, Tom is not sure he would have been ready to join the board. “Frances has grounded me in the mission unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on a board I’ve served on or directed.” For her part, Frances appreciates Tom’s support and friendship. “He reads everything on paper and explains things. We are good friends. I call him once a month to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ We really enjoy each other.”