Community-Building and Commitment-Building with PATH
David and Faye Wetherow
Person-Centered Planning: Voices of Experience Edited
by John O’Brien & Connie Lyle O’Brien ©
2004 Inclusion Press
book on-line from
Press or mail or fax order to
Crescent • Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6H 2S5
416.658.5363 • fax 416.658.5067
Note: This article may be printed out
for personal use, and we welcome Internet links, but reprinting for
training materials, etc. requires permission from Inclusion Press.
Please write for
When people first learn about PATH, they tend to think of it as a planning
tool –after all, that’s part of the title: Planning Alternative Futures
with Hope (Pearpoint,
O’Brien & Forest, 1995).
If they are involved in supporting people with disabilities, they are
likely to be interested in the prospect of a colorful, engaging,
positively-oriented alternative to traditional individual program
planning, education planning, and service planning processes.
PATH is certainly a powerful planning tool, but in addition, and, perhaps
even more importantly, it is a very powerful tool for
PATH and traditional planning processes
Unlike a service plan, a PATH is not defined by or constrained by the
limitations of what the service system is prepared to offer, nor by the
prescribed mandate of an agency, school, or service system. The creative
conversation at the heart of PATH extends well beyond any agency mandate,
and the invitation to participate should extend well beyond the boundaries
of the service system.
PATH is not an ISP, IPP, IEP, Health Care Plan or Rehabilitation Plan.
When it is thoughtfully undertaken, it offers a broad view of the person’s
vision for their own life, a vision sometimes developed in collaboration
with friends and family members, especially when people have great
difficulty communicating. With that broad vision in mind, it becomes
possible to derive a service plan that is consistent with the PATH.
The service plan derived from PATH is one of a larger set of
understandings and commitments. It is the response of
of the parties to the person’s future (the agency, the school, the
system’s representative) to a larger expression of the person’s life
direction. It gives an agency a way of saying, “We see the overall
direction and understand our role in supporting that direction. The ISP
that we will develop next week will reflect how we can support Shirley to
pursue the elements of her PATH that fall within our mandate.”
The school might say, “We understand the broad direction that Jack and his
family want to take with his education, and we’re clear about our role in
supporting that direction. Next month, we will develop an Individual
Education Plan to reflect what the school is able to offer Jack to assist
him on that PATH.
Sometimes the PATH graphic depicts the intention to create a relevant
service plan as one of the many steps that will contribute to the goal,
but by now it is clear that the service plan does not define the goal, and
it is well understood that the vision is not limited by the mandate of the
Community-building and commitment-building begin with strategic
When we are organizing a personal PATH, one of the general strategies we
have in mind is the idea of following the threads of a person’s interests,
gifts, dreams, and passions in the direction of community connection,
companionship and contribution. We know that a great deal of energy is
released when it becomes apparent that the personal interests of the
pathfinder intersect with the personal interests of community members,
caregivers and other allies.
With this strategy in mind, we encourage the pathfinder and his allies to
think expansively, creatively and courageously about whom to invite to the
PATH session. We mention family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues,
people who may have been important to them in the past, and especially
members of the larger community. We emphasize people with whom they might
share a particular interest or passion, or people with whom they share a
strong identity –perhaps people who attend the same church, members of
common cultural groups, and so on.
One person’s question about how to deal with the bugs in her garden
without using pesticides might be welcomed by community members who might
be involved in permaculture, organic gardening, or saving the local river
estuary. We could pursue the possibility that a brief connection based on
that question might evolve into a more extended involvement, companionship
and contribution to the cause of a less polluted planet. If someone were
interested in music, we would encourage them to invite people who are
involved in making music, even if they were relative strangers. Church and
cultural connections can be particularly fruitful, even if they don’t
appear to include common interests other than a shared cultural identity.
Remember the old nursery rhyme,
Here is the church,
Here is the steeple,
Open the door,
And see all the people!
When we think about it, each one of ‘the people’ goes some place during
the day, so a connection that begins with the church has the potential to
reach into hundreds of places in the community. Each of the members is
also connected with other friends, neighbors, interest groups, community
associations, workplaces, and so on, so a single connection has the
potential to reach into hundreds of additional ‘places’ in the community.
If we limit the PATH invitation to the usual cast of characters –service
managers, immediate family members, caregivers, system advocates– we may
be missing this rich set of potential connections.
A few years ago, we visited a facility-based day program that was
searching for a new direction. One of the young women who attended the
program particularly enjoyed the activity of baking muffins every
Wednesday afternoon. Program staff described the benefits: an enjoyable
hour or two; a tasty dessert to share with friends and family, learning
outcomes related to reading and following recipes, development of
“functional” cooking skills, and so on.
Since many of the people in the program expressed the desire for more
companionship and connection in their lives, we began to explore the
moving from activity to connection.*
When the staff began thinking about
cooking-with-a-focus-on-connection, one of them quipped, “We need to
stop cooking and start looking”. Being a good detective became an
interesting new element in their job descriptions.
As our conversation evolved, we helped Sara and her mother create an
invitation list for a personal PATH. Initially, Sara thought about
inviting a couple of program staff, her social worker and her mother. We
asked Sara if she might want to invite some other people in her
community who cared about her. She
said yes, she would invite the pastor from her church.
On the day scheduled for the PATH, we arrived at the apartment building
where Sara and her mother lived, and encountered a rather
distinguished-looking English gentleman. We introduced ourselves and
learned that he was the pastor that Sara had talked about. “I’m not sure
what I’m doing here,” he said, “I don’t know anything about disability.”
“That’s alright,” we said, “We’re really glad that you’re here. Our
guess is that you’ll have a lot to offer.”
Sara had been in the day program for some time, and program planning
normally took the form of asking “what activity should we add to the
calendar?” –focusing on personal interests and skill development, but
not particularly focusing on connections. But now, because Sara’s PATH
included the idea of moving from activity to connection, several new
opportunities presented themselves. And it turned out that Pastor Martin
held the key to almost all of the connections.
As soon as we mentioned the idea of “cooking as connection,” Martin came
up with the idea of introducing her to the group of women who met every
Saturday afternoon at the church to make muffins for the Sunday service.
‘Gardening-as-connection’ led to Martin’s vision (included by Sara on
her PATH!) of planting 5,000 daffodils in the garden beds at the foot of
the church. “It will be spectacular in the spring! And we won’t just
have people digging and weeding alone –we’ll make sure that people do
this together and have a picnic whenever they get together at the
Sara was interested in social dancing, and this activity had
always taken the form of a little group of people from the day
program being driven to the pub by staff on Thursday evenings. But
when Martin learned that Sara loved folk dancing, he came up the idea of
starting an English folk dance group in their small community. Martin
had a personal interest in this –he missed the folk dancing that was
part of his life in England before he came to Canada, and he knew that
there was no such group in their town.
Martin absolutely understood what we were working on. He understood that
Sara was a catalyst for community-building –that she would make his
community stronger. And, he was able to make connections that nobody
else could make– because he was a connected person. This gentle man who
was so nervous at the outset, ended up making the strongest set of
commitments at Sara’s PATH –and he kept his promises.
We thought about what made this work.
We limited “the ask”.
When we made the invitation, we only asked for involvement for the
duration of the PATH session itself; we didn’t ask for a lifetime
commitment. In essence, we said, “Martin, we wonder if you could help us
by spending a couple of hours thinking with Sara about her life and
thinking about how her interests might be encouraged.”
Although we didn’t ask for a commitment beyond the PATH session, we did
hope for it. There was no way of predicting or controlling the outcome,
but the outcome would have been certain if Sara hadn’t made the
invitation. Making the invitation requires courage –but it’s worth it.
Each of the elements of PATH offered an opportunity for engagement. Martin
became engaged at many distinct points in the overall PATH process. Each
of the steps in PATH offers a unique opportunity for engagement:
Hearing the Dream,
people often begin to get the feeling that they are on sacred ground –in a
tender place– and they respond with considerable empathy. As the deeper
parts of the Dream are spoken and heard, people begin to see the other
person in themselves; and they see themselves in the other person. With
the pathfinder’s permission, we offer all participants the opportunity to
add something to the Dream –something that reflects their knowledge of the
person, reveals the person’s gifts and interests, or is an expression of
dream for the person. We always check in with the pathfinder to see if
each element corresponds with their own personal vision.
The inquiry about the Goal
is framed in a way that allows participants to feel that it is not just
desirable, but possible, and they begin to sense what might become their
own role in making those possible things happen. In Sara’s PATH, the
question “What would be happening if we were doing good work in this
direction for a couple of years?” allowed Pastor Martin to visualize his
own place in the picture, and to see that this role was within his means,
because it was balanced by the roles that others played. “I know these
women who bake at the church on Saturdays, and I know I can help Sara make
As the PATH develops, each of the participants begins to envision their
particular role in making things happen. In their imaginations, they begin
to experience the sense of satisfaction that comes from contributing to a
desirable outcome, and begin to relish the part they can play in making
this positive future possible.
Creating a snapshot of What’s Happening Now
may engender recognition of difficulty, but it also contributes to an
awareness of resources and opportunities. “Sara spends a lot of time
alone” is balanced with “She makes wonderful muffins, and I know one
woman in the group who would really appreciate her skill in that area.
Mary would be a perfect bridge builder for the Saturday group.
Do We Need to Enroll?”
is a question that often marks a change in the energy level of a PATH. We
recognize that we need to enroll ourselves; and we see that if others can
be enrolled the effort will be more broadly shared – making our
contribution possible. It becomes clear that a continuing strategy of
enrollment is one of the things that will eventually bridge the gap
between where we are now and where we want to be.
What Do We Need to Do to Get Stronger?
Identifying General Strategies, and Identifying Milestones on the way to
the goal are all steps that engage the creativity and the problem-solving
energy of the participants, create additional opportunities to see oneself
in the picture, and increase the sense of shared effort and possibility.
Committing to First Steps
is a crucial opportunity for each participant to declare their personal
commitment and hear and celebrate the commitments of others.
The final check-in
offers an opportunity to recognize and declare a sense of delight, safety
and commitment, and to relish hearing that expression on the parts of
PATH process engages participants in problem-solving,
and they experience a growing sense of involvement and investment.
Joe’s vision of owning his own home galvanized the 17 people who had
gathered to participate in his PATH. “I bought the house!” Joe said in
the ‘Goal’ section of his PATH. “Great,” we said, “How did that happen?”
Joe was a bit stumped, but half a dozen of the people who had gathered
with him ‘remembered’ what made it possible to buy the house:
“We used some of the money that Joe’s mother had set aside for him to
make a down payment.”
“I got my friend Charlie, the bank manager, to come to a circle meeting
about a month after we did this PATH. He saw Joe’s vision, and he also
realized that the circle was a source of real strength – it gave Charlie
the security he needed to feel comfortable about making the loan.”
“We had a big painting party one weekend. All of us showed up with our
families. We painted and gardened and picnicked, and had a great time.
Mary brought one of her famous apple cobblers!”
Joe’s group needed a real estate agent who would operate with integrity
– they couldn’t afford to make a big mistake in purchasing a house – and
one participant in the group remembered that she knew someone who would
fit the bill. “My friend Janna is a real estate agent who is very
honest. We can share Joe’s PATH with her so she understands what we are
trying to do, and she can help us find a place that we can afford that
won’t have any hidden problems. Also, she’ll know that seventeen people
will be watching – that will keep anybody honest.”
The real estate agent showed up later in the PATH as one of the ‘People
we Need to Enroll’, and the person who had the strongest personal
connection with her included contacting her as one of her personal First
Steps. Other participants celebrated this contribution, and in a very
subtle way, are prepared to encourage and support that participant to
take that important first step. If the group makes good use of the PATH
graphic, they can re-visit the story each time they meet, and hold
themselves accountable for their personal and collective commitments.
As participants begin to get engaged in active problem-solving,
the experience of making these active contributions deepens their sense of
commitment and shared purpose. The
inquiry helps pathfinders and their allies become more strategic in
As a long-time recipient of rehabilitation services, John had adopted a
rather closed, binary model of thinking about how he might make progress
in his life. Significant gains were either to be
achieved alone –through independent effort– or they could not be
achieved alone, in which case he needed to go back to the service system
for further rehabilitation and training.
Years of immersion in special education and rehabilitation services had
never raised the prospect of enlisting his personal support network in
helping with his search for meaningful employment, quitting smoking, or
moving towards more authenticity in his relationships – all of these had
been interpreted as matters of individual skill or will.
The pattern of inquiry and reflection in PATH opened up some new
possibilities. John can use the graphic record to remember the
strategies he created, to share his vision and plan with his friends,
and to reconnect with the energy that was attached to these
The inquiry encourages the pathfinder to recognize the importance of
identifying individuals and groups to enlist, to get very specific about
what they plan to ask people to contribute, and to make very specific
plans to contact those potential supporters.
Even when potential supporters are absent, pathfinders and allies see that
they can use the PATH graphic to effectively share their vision with
friends and family members. The prospect of gaining
understanding, commitment and practical support from this
extended community is exciting and highly motivating.
PATH may help redefine stuck roles,
releasing a lot of energy.
The staff members who worked in the four-person residence that was
Walter’s home had become rather bored with their jobs. The Nursing Plan
(in a big blue binder full of charts) not only defined the work of the
shift, it defined their relationship with Walter, their jobs, and their
identities. One staffer said, “We have to check our real lives at the
door when we come in to do a shift.”
Walter was a man who didn’t speak, and he slept most of the time. When
we were inquiring about the Dream, it initially began and ended with
“Healthy” and “Safe”. But when we asked, “When does he wake up?” the
staff woke up!
“He loves banjo music. I brought my banjo here one night, and he really
seemed to enjoy it.”
“He wakes up when he’s in fresh air. I had to meet my daughter at the
skating rink, so I took Walter with me, and he kind of came alive.”
“He loves it when new people are around. I had a couple of friends over
for tea one afternoon, and he really liked hearing the sound of people
As those elements became part of the Dream (connected to a little
graphic showing Walter waking up), new elements began to emerge: “Walter
surrounded by people who see who he really is”, “Part of a larger
community.” “A gentle, patient teacher and listener.”
Then, in the Goal section, the PATH took an interesting twist. Instead
of moving in the direction of looking for a music program, a recreation
program, and a socialization program, individual staff members began to
create little stories about involving Walter in the activities and
connections that formed important parts of their own lives. It turned
out that one staff member is a very accomplished musician, and that he
was connected with dozens of people who make music in the area. He
started the ball rolling…
“I can get Walter in when people are jamming … especially when they’re
playing Bluegrass music. That’ll be a good time for Walter, and it will
be a good time for me!”
“I coach competitive skating. If we can free up the van, I can bring
Walter to practices. The one time he went, the skaters loved pushing his
chair around on the ice.”
“For years, I’ve wanted to be part of the Amnesty International group
that meets at the Library. If Walter and I go together, he would be my
best reason for finally making that commitment. I wonder if Amnesty
works on behalf of people in institutions?”
“Hmm, you know, if we do this with Walter, we can do it with Jane…”
The move from caretaker to detective and bridge builder, especially when
it involves things that people are personally invested in and passionate
about, can be liberating.
We’ve seen this happen with family members as well.
Two sisters said, “Now we know what we can do. Before this, all we could
see was Mom beating her head against a brick wall, and we knew we didn’t
want to do that. But now we see ourselves on Mary’s PATH.”
A father who had long been separated from his family had only spoken a
few words during his daughter’s PATH. When we reached the last stage
(First Steps) he was literally the last person in the room to speak.
“This has been great” he said. “We can hold the next PATH meeting at my
house.” A breakthrough.
Community and organizational PATHs
PATH builds community in the context of planning for individuals and
families, but it can also directly support a community or a group to
develop a clear picture of their direction and commitment. Sometimes, the
group has a very specific project they want to work on, but sometimes,
they’re simply struggling with the question, “What do we want to
as a community?”
Pastor Martin’s small church congregation engaged this question a few
months after Sara’s PATH. The pattern that emerged surprised and
delighted everyone, and opened the door to the church being more
purposeful in its commitment to inclusion. One man said, “I want this to
be a church where my skepticism is as welcome as my faith,” and he
received acclamation from all of the other participants. At the end, I
said, “If I knew for a certainty that there was a church like this in
our community, I’d be there in a second!”
Members of a housing cooperative used PATH to regenerate their
commitment to be a community. “In the last couple of years we’ve gotten
totally preoccupied with finances and furnaces, and we’ve lost the sense
of why we came together in the first place.”
Parents, teachers, students and elders created a PATH to re-energize a
private school that was based in seven constituent churches. In this
PATH, it turned out that the most disaffiliated student was the person
who created the biggest breakthrough!
In Northern British Columbia, a group of First Nations elders created a
community PATH that was initially focused on the question of how to
bring back people with disabilities who had moved to urban institutions
and nursing homes decades ago. Rather than starting with a vision for a
service agency or a hospital board, their vision centered on a 3,000
year-old traditional body of understanding about how individual life,
family, clan and community life, life on the land, and connection with
the Creator were to be conducted. Then they used this pattern to figure
out how they would organize the work of bringing people with
Since then, this community has unrolled their PATH about every six
months to work on another question –fisheries, education, economic
development, cultural enterprises, and so on. One of the participants
said that this PATH was like doing an archeological dig: it is a way for
the community to remember together things that they have always known,
but now, because the whole pattern can be seen in one place, it is more
available for community-building.
Walter’s PATH includes a tiny graphic depicting “a long, slow,
tender journey”. PATH-in-practice is a world-wide journey of
discovery, connection and contribution. It can be a gift from the
disability field to the larger community. People who live with the
questions about welcoming people into the heart of community life are
discovering many patterns for capacity-finding,
community-building, following the threads of gifts and interests, and
developing engagement and commitment. Our communities need this.
The picture that is emerging is more like a mosaic than a satellite map.
The discoveries about PATH and community-building are being made in the
moments, with Walter, and Sara, and Martin. There is no Corps of
Engineers or university research facility assembling a giant map. We’re
more like the early explorers, following tiny trails, canoeing in and
out of small bays –the sweet places of community life. If there is ever
going to be a ‘big map’, it will be because the explorers –the people
who are reading this book– occasionally take the time to gather
together, share their stories, and weave the stories together. We invite
you to share your discoveries.
J., O’Brien, J. & Forest, M. (1995).
(2nd edition). Toronto:
describe the process of helping ways of understanding as they make plans
with individuals, groups, and