“The people – they listened…”: One young man’s Circle of Support

Tom is a young man who lives in his own shared ownership house and who is very much in control of his own life. Tom is supported by a volunteer house mate from Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and a team of personal assistants (PAs) he has chosen. But it wasn’t always like that!

One evening in the summer of 2006 twelve invited people crowded into the living room of Tom’s group home – it was Tom’s first circle meeting. It was fantastic to see all eyes and ears focused just on Tom. By the end of the meeting there was a clear action plan with things Tom wanted to change in his life. Afterwards Tom said: “The meeting was brilliant – the people – they listened.”

That first circle meeting was the first step towards Tom being able to live the life he chooses using a personal budget. He was unhappy where he was living and the seeds were sown that night for him to move into a place of his own. The effect has been life changing for Tom. He is more confident, has a job setting up for music gigs in a local venue, organises music gigs, does fair trading, has friends round, goes out more and most importantly, is happier than he has ever been.

A circle is a group of people who are chosen by an individual to support them to achieve their goals in life. The idea is so simple but so effective – Tom, with support, made a list of all the friends and family who were important in his life and then decided who he would like to invite to be in his circle. When we asked people to join, no one said ‘no’. People positively wanted to be part of Tom’s life - many of them said it was a privilege to be asked. It was so refreshing to hear people describing Tom as inspirational, generous, a good laugh, thoughtful, and lots more. An important lesson for any parent!

Having a circle means that Tom no longer relies just on his family to make decisions or organise things he wants to do. It’s a great way for families to start to share these responsibilities with others and to make sustainable plans for when we are no longer around. There’s nothing Tom loves more than inviting his circle round to his house, sharing a meal and having a chance to talk about things that are important to him and new things he wants to do.

Tom and I are members of a York-based group of disabled people and family members called Lives Unlimited. Over the last few years the lives of some of the group’s members have been transformed by having a circle. And now we want to share this idea with others. We have recently been awarded some funding from the Big Lottery Fund (Awards For All), to set up a project to help other disabled people in York to set up a circle so they have more control over their lives.

Lives Unlimited will provide a trained facilitator to support the person to bring their circle together and plan with them, then help to make the plan a reality.

The person needing support is assisted to invite family, friends and neighbours – people who love and care about them - to meet together on a regular basis to help them think through things they want to do in their life and then make them happen.

This may be seemingly small things like having someone to go to the pictures with, playing snooker, having friends round, or it might be something big like moving into their own home, getting a job or going on holiday.

The disabled person is in control, deciding who to invite to be in the circle and how the circle works. A facilitator is usually employed to do the work needed to keep the group focused.

Any time is a good time to set up a circle for a disabled child or adult. But as young people move into adulthood (transition) circles can be particularly effective in making sure that the young person is in the driving seat as they plan their future.

Sarah Wood, the co-ordinator for the Lives Unlimited Circles project, has successfully used this approach to help her son (who recently left school) to achieve a more independent lifestyle including paid work. She has since introduced other disabled young people and their families to the circles of support approach to help them plan a more inclusive and personally fulfilling future for themselves.

Sarah said:

“My son’s circle has put an end to isolation. He was excluded and lonely. I used to worry about what would happen in his future as I got older. Now he has a circle of friends, he says he loves his life.”

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