The Star Raft is ...
This website is a container for the tools for doing the work and a landing place for a community of teachers and facilitators who are guiding the process.
The Star Raft Process is ...
Star Raft circles systematically 'follow the threads' of a person's gifts, capacities and interests in the direction of connection, companionship and contribution.
The Star Raft Project is ...
Our mission is to make the tools and supports available to people who live with disabilities, and their families, friends and community partners for free, forever.
Why do we build circles in the first place?
David Pitonyak once wrote, 'The only real disability is loneliness'. We have known for a long time that the one thing that will make the biggest positive difference in the life of a person with a disability and their family is the degree to which that person is surrounded by a circle of people who know her and love her, who know that she will be part of their lives and that they will be part of her life for the long run. We have learned that the circle needs to be intentional, self-aware, and focused on the positive if it is to stay together, be creative and resilient, and last a lifetime.
In Search of a Metaphor
In the realm of organizing supports for people who live with disabilities and other challenges, the idea of a 'circle' has been around for a long time, but the image of a circle doesn't give us much information about how to do the work. We had been thinking for some time that it might be helpful to find a more useful image for building and sustaining a creative, connected, enduring circle that would be anchored in the life of the larger community.
Albert Einstein has often been quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible … but not simpler”, and we knew that what we were looking for wasn’t quite as simple as a circle. Maybe we needed something stronger than an ‘image’.
The blogger Seth Godin wrote, “The best way to learn a complex idea is to find it living inside something else you already understand.” So perhaps we were looking for a richer metaphor.
One summer evening in the early 1990s, we were sailing with friends on the Lake of the Woods in Northwestern Ontario. As we prepared to drop anchor for the night, our friends invited us to join them in what they called a ‘star raft’ out on the water. We learned that the star raft is a pattern that recreational sailors sometimes use when they want to anchor in community. We haven’t been able to find the pattern written down anywhere, but somehow it’s been passed down from one generation of sailors to another for centuries. It’s connected to nautical traditions of hospitality, keeping each other safe on the water, people sharing what’s on board, teaching new sailors the ropes, talking about how to manage hazards up ahead, and making plans to visit the ‘sweet places’ on the water together.
As the star raft formed on the Lake that evening, it occurred to us that the pattern could be a great image and a working metaphor for what we were attempting to accomplish when we were trying to build circles. We realized:
As we thought more about it, we started to see that there were many elements inside the sailing metaphor that could be useful when designing and organizing the work of a circle: a set of nautical ‘roles’ that would keep us reminded of the work to be done and the value of sharing that work around; a pattern for joining and an equally important pattern for leaving a circle that can help keep a circle intact for the long run; the idea of paying attention to ‘where people are anchored’ in the larger community and what skills, interests and capacities they might be ‘carrying on board’ — an abundant set of resources and connections that might be shared.
How a Sailing Star Raft is Built
One of the remarkable things about a Star Raft is that only one person needs to know how to build it. That person ‘anchors out’ and then ‘backs in’ towards what will become the centre of a circle of boats. That skipper of that boat gets on the radio and invites one other boat to anchor out in the opposite direction and back in so the two boats are nearly touching — just close enough that they can tie their sterns together with two short pieces of line. Each additional boat follows the same pattern — anchoring out, backing in, tying up — and a circle begins to take shape. By adjusting and tightening up on the stern lines, people can walk from one boat to another, offer hospitality and share what they carry on board. A sailing star raft is based on invitation and agreement, just like any other circle – but the process is clear, easy to learn and easy to pass on from place to place. Every person who has ever been part of a star raft knows how to start and build the next one.
The Star Raft reflects the ‘Family Pattern’
In traditional societies, the family and extended family constellation was probably large, diverse and enduring enough to do all of these things; but in these days of unlimited mobility, it’s rare for extended families to live in the same local area across the generations.
The modern nuclear family has a built-in vulnerability: brothers and sisters grow up and leave home, and they often travel to far-off locations to go to school or find work. Parents grow older and live with all of the challenges associated with aging, and time and tide eventually take all of us away from each other. Every parent worries, “Who is going to be here for my child when I’m gone?”.
The Star Raft doesn’t operate ‘outside’ the family or in competition with the family – it’s more like ‘opening up the family circle’ and including more people in the faithful work that a family is already doing.
What do Star Rafts ‘Do’?
Star Raft circles are independent of formal ‘systems’. They’re free, anchored in the authentic community, and they’re definitely focused on action:
- They help individuals and families clarify their objectives and create a strong sense of direction;
- They systematically identify and mobilize the skills, capacities and interests of the focus person and everyone else involved;
- They ‘follow the threads’ of the focus person’s interests and capacities in the direction of companionship, connection and contribution;
- They engage community partners who have standing in and can provide access to workplaces, learning spaces and community associations where a person’s presence and contributions will be understood and valued; and
- They sustain involvement over time by paying attention to continuity and continually working on a flow of new membership into the group.
Star Raft circles bring connection, companionship and collaboration into the life of an individual or family. They include friends and allies who are on-purpose and committed for the long haul. Star Rafts are designed to be self-sustaining and self-renewing by encouraging members to introduce trusted friends and colleagues, expand the circle, and invite new contributions and commitments.
Some Star Rafts add a focus on customized employment. Others might help people develop and operate small businesses. Some Star Rafts evolve into Microboards that help individuals and families manage direct support services. Others help the person at the center navigate the challenges involved in starting a new job or making the transition to increased autonomy and interdependence.
Star Raft strategies can be seamlessly incorporated into existing person-centered planning and day-to-day supports, making each conversation an opportunity to consciously strengthen the role of natural community connections in people’s lives. The pattern is working in disability, mental health and other community services, and it has strong potential in areas such as child protection, community justice and aging.
Free for the Families
Some years ago, our friend Bob Perske reminded us that when he got his first Social Security cheque, he thought, “I have just been given a lifetime government grant where I’m free to work on absolutely anything I want – with no strings attached!” Our hope is that we can bring the knowledge of how to build strong Star Raft circles and provide the tools, materials and the supports that people need to do this, for free, forever.
We spent many years working in and around the edges of governments, programs and ‘projects’, and we’ve come to the conclusion that having the Star Raft work funded through government sources would mean the end of it. Requiring families and friends to obtain public funding would put everyone deep into the game of ‘competitive misery’ in which everyone is forced to define their personal situation as more desperate or more tragic than someone else’s in order to get the resources they need.
We’ve given this a lot of thought, and it recently occurred to us that there is a model for delivering supports for free that has worked successfully for decades – it’s Alcoholics Anonymous. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, you can always find an AA meeting, and the price of admission is simply wanting to walk through the door. Starting in the 1930s, AA grew slowly, naturally, spread by example and a tradition of ‘paying it forward’ through the act of sponsorship and servant leadership. There’s a Big Book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Interestingly enough, the Twelve Traditions include a recipe for staying clear of government funding.
So we want the Star Raft to be free …
- … so that people can freely learn it, share it, participate in it, facilitate it, teach it, and pay it forward.
- … because it creates a free and safe space in the lives of families and friends who live with disabilities.
- … from service funding so it can operate outside of the scope of systems, agencies and ‘programs’ and the competition that sets people against each other in the race for resources.
- … because it’s entirely in our hands to create and sustain, or not.
- … because everything we need to make this work is actually within our reach right now.
- … because it exists entirely in community space.
- … because the family’s and the person’s dream is always at the centre.
Today we have the Internet. It’s easy to publish just about anything online. We have access to inexpensive streaming video platforms, inexpensive video conferencing, and most important, we’re connected to a number of people who have been involved in the Circles movement for decades. The idea behind this website is to make materials available for free or as close to free as possible and to ‘gather the circle’ of people who value the work. So, this is a resource, but it’s also your community if you decide that’s what you want it to be.
This site is designed to get the Star Raft community connected and working on the web. We’ll start out by posting the components of the pattern, add a set of introductory videos, add links to people and places that are already using the pattern or similar patterns, and share a growing ‘toolkit’ of ideas, techniques and strategies that can be used any time, anywhere.
We want to make this site as collaborative, interactive and connected as possible – so pitch in with your comments, reflections, and ideas. You can also subscribe to our blog feed that will send you a short email when there’s new content. Welcome aboard!
About David and Faye
David and Faye Wetherow invented the Microboard model, which has been implemented in over 2,000 installations in the US, Canada and Australia. They also developed North America’s first inclusive housing cooperative, the first family- and consumer-governed service cooperative, and a mobile lending library of alternative communications equipment, training and technical assistance.
They are leaders in community living and self-directed supports and they have contributed to several publications including Voices of Experience: Implementing Person-Centered Planning, published by Inclusion Press. They are well-known presenters in state and national venues including TASH and the Revolutionary Leaders webinar series. They had the privilege of sharing their lives with a beloved adopted daughter who lived with significant communication, mobility and health challenges until her passing in 2004. She still inspires their work.
Honouring our Teachers
Our great friend and teacher, Judith Snow, recently departed, was one of the first people to articulate the idea and importance of ‘circles’ in our field. Her books, From Behind the Piano and What’s Really Worth Doing and How to Do It, set the stage hundreds of people doing decades of work building Circles of Support, Circles of Friends, and in the context of community justice, Circles of Support and Accountability.
When Judith and a number of her committed friends formed an emergency circle to get her out of a nursing home, they named it the ‘Joshua Committee’ and carved out the first individualized funding arrangement in the Canadian Province of Ontario. Judith often said, “We didn’t invent Circles. People have been making circles for seventy thousand years. We just named them”.
We were inspired by Judith’s work when we adapted the idea and formed the very first Microboards in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Microboards are circles with the added ability to contract for managing individualized services, and there are now over 2,000 of them operating in the US, Canada, Australia and Great Britain.
Jack Pearpoint and Marsha Forest, John O’Brien and Connie Lyle O’Brien, Cathy Ludlum, Bob Perske, Pat Beeman, George Ducharme and many others have studied, written about, and more importantly have ‘walked the walk’ with brothers and sisters, families, friends, and their Circles. Our First Nations friends remind us to honour our teachers, and we honour them here.