Coordination of special education advocates creates a network to support families of children with disabilities

Building upon a long and fruitful history of collaboration, the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD) and The Arc Tennessee are partnering again to expand and to sustain the Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP). The VAP trains individuals to become special education advocates so that they can provide support to families of children with disabilities in Tennessee. Since its inception in Fall 2008, the VAP has trained more than 300 advocates across the state.

The VAP has rapidly expanded beyond Nashville thanks to video-conferencing, and now includes multiple sites across the state. Cohorts have hailed from cities such as Memphis, Martin, Mountain City, Jackson, Chattanooga, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, Harrogate, Dickson, Bolivar, Mt. Juliet, Smyrna and Knoxville.

“With growth comes new challenges,” said Ellen Casale, VAP coordinator, VKC UCEDD trainee, and a doctoral student in Special Education at Vanderbilt University. “Through the program we provide 40 hours of training on various topics related to special education advocacy and then link each graduate with four families. There is no question that adding additional sites increases our numbers and requires more coordination of our advocates. An organization like The Arc Tennessee, which has a statewide reach and an emphasis on advocacy as a part of its mission, is well-suited to step into the role of matching volunteers with families who need their support.”

Once the volunteer advocates graduate from the program, The Arc Tennessee assumes responsibility for fielding referrals and assigning advocates accordingly. Staff also provide ongoing technical support and continuing education to enhance their knowledge in relevant topic areas. Additionally, The Arc Tennessee coordinates the collection of data for ongoing research, evaluation, and improvement of the VAP.

“Our role in the VAP is a natural extension of what we already do in terms of advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and their families,” said Carrie Hobbs Guiden, executive director at The Arc Tennessee. “It is partnerships like these that bring together our individual strengths as organizations and create stronger and more effective outcomes to benefit the people we serve.”

The Fall 2018 VAP training is currently accepting applications. It will be held Mondays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (central) from August 20 through November 5. Participants will learn about individualized education plans, assistive technology, discipline provisions, behavior intervention plans, non-adversarial advocacy techniques, legislative change, least restrictive environment, and extended school year services. The training also has various speakers including professors, attorneys, parents of children with disabilities, and advocates.

To apply for the program, visit, or email your questions to

If you would like to request a special education advocate, call (615) 601-0825. Please leave a voicemail with your name, phone number, and location (city/county).

Courtney Taylor is associate director of Communication and Dissemination.

Pictured top of page: Volunteer Advocacy Project training participants in Johnson City, TN

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