Circle of Friends – The Path to Inclusion uses a deceptively simple model to radically change the culture of acceptance in schools. Students with disabilities, who traditionally have not been well integrated into school life, are provided with a small cohort of non-disabled student peers who eat lunch with them, call them regularly and otherwise support them. Student peers receive training on how to interact effectively with students with disabilities. The creation of Circle of Friends at its birthplace, Santa Monica High School, has fostered a new climate at the school, where for the first time non-disabled students greet students with special needs in the hallways, integrated groups eat lunch together, and the strangeness and stigma of interacting with disabled students is removed. Circle of Friends is now replicating, its model around the country.
Springboard Mentorship Profile
Barbara Palilis, Executive Director, Circle of Friends
Mentor: Ruth Slaughter, Vice President of Community Programs, PROTOTYPES
Barbara Palilis was working as a speech pathologist with special education students at Santa Monica High School when she came up with the idea for Circle of Friends. Barbara noticed how her students, who had developmental or physical disabilities, were socially isolated on campus. They ate lunch alone, or with other disabled students, and were not integrated into the school community.
Barbara came up with a simple, but profound, solution. Circle of Friends works with general education students, teaming them up with disabled students to have lunch on certain days of the week. The mainstream students receive training on how to interact with their disabled peers. From this simple beginning, friendship and support develop. Students with special needs have people who say hello to them when they walk down the halls. With so many relationships connecting disabled students to the rest of the school, they are no longer marginalized. The entire school culture changes as a result, to one of greater knowledge and acceptance of differences. After seeing the remarkable transformation in the school community at Santa Monica High, Barbara had dreams of bringing the Circle of Friends model to other schools around the country.
When Barbara applied for Springboard funding in 2007, she was paired with Ruth Slaughter as a mentor. While the subject matter of Ruth’s work at PROTOTYPES, which serves women dealing with substance abuse problems, HIV/AIDS and homelessness, is not directly applicable to Circle of Friends, her decades-long career in the nonprofit sector is. Barbara testifies to the positive effect that working with Ruth has had on COF.
“The first time I met Ruth, she told me, ‘Barb, you don’t just have an organization, you have a movement.’ This isn’t what I wanted to hear, because I didn’t have time to run a movement. But Ruth was right, and that’s what we’re doing now.
“This has evolved beyond a mentor-mentee experience, into a relationship and a friendship. Ruth is passionate about what we do at Circle of Friends,” she added.
Ruth and Barbara met approximately every three weeks. In less than two years, Circle of Friends grew from an organization that Barbara ran part-time out of her home into a staffed organization with its own office space, 23 chapters, and plans to expand, adding chapters in the coming year. In 2012, CoF has 75 chapters throughout the country and has positively impacted more than 15,000 students.
For Ruth, the mentoring has been rewarding as well.
“Barbara and I are a really good match. She hasn’t been an Executive Director before, and hadn’t really had that as a life goal. Our relationship has evolved as her needs have evolved,” Ruth said. “One of the new challenges has been hiring and managing staff, and we have spent a lot of time talking about that. We have also discussed time management and how to take care of yourself while growing a new organization.”
Barbara is looking forward to having Ruth as a facilitator for Circle of Friends’ upcoming board retreat. One of the things that the advisory board will be considering is whether Circle of Friends should become an independent 501(c)(3) organization. COF currently operates under the fiscal sponsorship of Community Partners.
“It’s a unique situation to receive a mentor from a funder, along with the funding. Ruth has helped me realize that I’m not alone out there,” said Barbara.