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Cornell University. ILR School. Employment and Disability Institute

Course 5f: Circles of Support

“Circles of Support” is closely associated with the work that the tools of person-centered planning seek to accomplish and quite often it is assumed to be a person-centered tool. It is, however, a different type of process. A circle of support forms and operates totally in the interest of the focus person. The person and/or a trusted communication ally, determine every aspect of the circle from who to invite into the circle to the what, where, why and how the circle will function. The circle is located in and depends upon its community for its effectiveness.

The circle is usually made up of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and affiliates from other groups such as church and community organizations. It sometimes includes service providers but generally the people who comprise the circle are not paid members. They are part of the circle because they want to be and they have made a commitment to work together to improve the quality of the person’s life. This selected group of individuals agrees to meet on a regular basis to assist the focus person to accomplish personal visions or goals.

Circle members provide support to the focus person and to one another. While getting and giving support is a critical component of the circle the real purpose of the circle is to take action.

There are four steps to building a circle of support:

  1. Begin with a vision of what the focus person wants to accomplish. Forge the path for reaching the vision in manageable steps.
  2. Leverage capacities to empower the focus person by recognizing and utilizing the natural resources inherent in the person that will facilitate movement toward reaching the vision.
  3. Work with people who are interested in and care about the focus person and who will commit their own talents to supporting the person in moving forward in a process of doing “with,” not doing “for.”
  4. Find connections within the internal community of the person’s life such as families and friends and within the external community such as in neighbors and community resources.

Membership within the circle may ebb and flow as progress made toward the vision dictates the type of tasks and activities that are needed at each step. There should always be a core group of committed members however who help to keep the work on course. A comprehensive review of the logistics of building and running a circle of support can be found in Cathy Ludlum’s book One Candle Power (1993). For a complete citation for accessing the publication visit the Suggested Reading and/or Reference, Resource and Links sections of this course.