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from the beginning

The story of Shangri-La began in 1963 when seventeen families joined efforts to establish a place that would nurture and educate their children with special needs.


Yearning for better care for their children with developmental disabilities than institutions of the time could offer,  the families pooled their private resources and purchased a 30-acre rural property just east of Salem, Oregon.

Old picture of founding Shangri-La families

Founding Families

"That they may have individual fulfillment, personal dignity, and happiness."

Shangri-La's founding motto

The existing farmhouse was converted into several classrooms, and a larger school building was completed in 1965. Tuition for attendees was $55 per month, which included “a hearty lunch” and bus transportation. Students ranged in age from 4 to 43 years of age. For the first 12 years of operation, Shangri-La was funded privately, and staffed by volunteers and a few direct-care workers.

Over the next 15 years, Shangri-La continued to deliver what was then considered state-of-the-art services. Shangri-La’s founders and families received extensive public, private, and local support as they set out to assure excellence in what was to be a life-long home and education program.

"Shangri-La is a unique concept; a parental organization working to provide for the full needs of the mentally handicapped. To meet fulfillment, we invite participation from one and all."

Excerpt from original Shangri-La brochure

Children with developmental disabilities were provided safety, comfort, supports, and services along with their families. Enrollment was sought by families across the nation. Shangri-La leaders and many in the newly forming national “disability community” believed that this new program piloting in Oregon was the model and hope for the future of developmentally disabled children and adults.


At its peak, over 120 children were receiving loving and patient support at the Shangri-La school.

Responding to the needs of their changing population, in 1988, Shangri-La’s leadership began the transformation to a supported, community-integrated lifestyle. Shangri-La purchased homes in community neighborhoods, and with a few modifications, the children who had grown up with Shangri-La and were now adults lived in 4-5 bedroom homes in their community.

Over the years, Shangri-La's services have evolved to meet the needs of individuals served and of our communities.


Today, Shangri-La is a diverse human services organization serving over 2,000 individuals annually across seven Oregon counties and employing nearly 500 people. 

School Land.jpg

Aeriel photo of original campus boundary

Black and white picture of first Shangri-La school

Original school house and sign

Older white woman singing with young black boy who has disabilities.

Child and support worker on campus

Group picture of Shangri-La students from 1976.

1976 group photo

What's in a name?

In 1963 Shangri-La's founding families selected the name Shangri-La based on the utopian sanctuary described in the 1933 novel by James Hilton, "Lost Horizon". 


In the novel, the main character travels to Shangri-La and finds inner peace, love, and a sense of purpose. 

Cover of Lost Horizon novel

Closely aligned with the ideals and environment these families wanted for their children, the founding families set to work creating their own Shangri-La by pooling their private resources and purchasing a 30-acre rural property just east of Salem, Oregon.

Still today, these ideals influence how services are delivered and environments are created.



pronunciation: shang-gruh-lah

1. an imaginary paradise on earth

2. a faraway haven or hideway of idyllic beauty and tranquility

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