The Three Kings

Each December, the L’Arche Cape Breton theatre group stages a Christmas pageant at the SAERC auditorium in Port Hawkesbury. This year’s show, on December 8, was a dramatization of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Christmas poem, The Three Kings.

Hollywood Oommen, Jamie Stewart, and Joan MacDonald starred as the Kings Melchior, Gaspar, and
Baltasar. Esther Akurut played Mary, Buddy Payne played Joseph, and Simon Zavo was the baby Jesus. David Gunn played Herod (with the help of a fantastic costume designed by Dennis Murphy). Dancing Maggie Power (my granddaughter) portrayed the star that led the kings to the stable where Jesus was born.

Find the complete credits here, and a fuller video introduction to the stage show here (with Jamie Stewart and my son Silas Donham as emcees).

For more information about the l’Arche community, visit, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and especially Instagram.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

A wordless man with much to say

For most of 2012, Mary MacDougall was acting community leader at l’Arche Cape Breton. That year, her birthday fell on a Tuesday, the night the whole community gathers to share supper, news, and conversation. That’s when Mary received an unexpected birthday gift from a man who has never spoken a word in his life.

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Then there was the time L’Arche Core Member David Gunn decided to ham it up at a gathering where EMT’s were present, inspiring a bigger reaction than he bargained for.

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You can subscribe to l’Arche Cape Breton’s YouTube channel, and follow l’Arche Cape Breton on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to l’Arche Cape Breton (a registered charity) by sending a cheque payable to The Ark Community Initiatives Society, 3 l’Arche Lane, Whycocomagh NS  B0E-3M0.

Does Down syndrome need to be “cured?”

David Gunn leaping - cJenn Power, Community Leader of L’Arche Cape Breton, mother of twin boys with Down syndrome, and—disclosure—Contrarian’s daughter-in-law, had an interesting reaction to news that a Stanford University research team has made headway toward a potential treatment for the intellectual impairment that is one of Down’s symptoms: She welled up with tears.

The researchers probed the brains of mice genetically engineered to develop a rodent version of Down syndrome. They found that a region known as the hippocampus lacked a neurotransmitter that enables the brain to perform contextual learning. This is the process of gaining and applying knowledge in real-world situations—things like remembering where you left the car keys.

The team found that injecting the mice with a drug the brain converts to the missing neurotransmitter markedly improved their learning skills, albeit temporarily.

The lead researcher, physician and neuroscientist Ahmad Salehi, emphasized that this may not work in humans. He also pointed out that Down syndrome is a multifaceted condition, and cognitive impairment is just one of its characteristics.

“No kidding,” said Jenn.

Try incredible smiles, overflowing affection, stubbornness, great sense of humour, cute toes, love for orange pop and Rita MacNeil, endless capacity to forgive… the list goes on and on.  I am not sure I can articulate why, but I find this article both upsetting (lump in my throat and eyes welled with tears right now) and disturbing.  Why does everything need a “cure?”

I have mixed feelings about this. My grandsons, and the many L’Arche core members with Down syndrome (including the irrepressible David Gunn, pictured above in a photo by L’Arche assistant Amil Zavo), have taught me to appreciate the wonderful qualities that often accompany the condition.

On the other hand, I have seen Josh and Jacob struggle painfully with learning tasks that come easily to other children (and the pride and delight they take when they do learn a new skill).

We would not hesitate to treat the heart conditions that afflict many people with Down syndrome. So why does someone with Jenn’s great love for, and insight into, Down children and adults feel so troubled by the theoretical possibility of treating their intellectual impairment?

Jenn didn’t elaborate, but I think it’s natural to wonder whether the quest for a “cure” arises out of, or at least accords with, the undervaluing of people with Down syndrome that is so prevalent. I also wonder about the impact a chemical treatment might have on the wonderful aspects of Down Sydnrome.

This issue may get wrapped up in the emerging debate about smart pills, discussed in the October issue of Scientific American.

I suspect Dr. Salehi has heard these misgivings before. Contacted by Contrarian, he kindly offered to comment on this blog post. I look forward to his observations, and those of Jenn or anyone else who wishes to respond.