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Where it Began: Chapter One

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Circle of Friends began in 1999 at Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, California. 

The program was built around a young man with Down Syndrome who sat alone and was ignored at lunch. This student, while fully included in general education classes, was completely isolated at a time when most teenagers are socializing and eating with friends.


With input from his parent, the school team established a goal to build “circles” of two to three non-disabled peers around the young man daily.  Soon, he became fully woven into the fabric of his campus…and Circle of Friends was born.  Invisible no longer, typical peers interacted with him more easily, friends said hello and waved in the hallways.

Autism Society, Autism Speaks

Circle of Friends started with 12 students and grew to over 400 participants at Santa Monica High School (Samohi)!  In 2005, due to its success at Samohi, a nonprofit of the same name formed to replicate the program within other school districts across the country.  The goal was, and remains, to touch the lives of more students both with and without special needs, their families and their community, having them benefit the way those did in Santa Monica. 

To date, Circle of Friends has launched nearly 245 chapters in seven states, bringing inclusion to elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and surrounding communities.  The lives of more than 300,000 participants have been positively transformed.

Circle of Friends has a lasting influence on future generations as they gain a lifelong understanding and acceptance of differences through their experiences in the program.

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