The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Volunteer Advocacy Project’s (VAP) Fall 2018 graduation on November 5 was an extra special celebration, as it marked 10 years of training family advocates to serve in their respective counties across the state of Tennessee.
Realizing the challenges parents face in advocating for their children with disabilities, the VAP trains participants to become special education advocates so they can provide support to families of children with disabilities in Tennessee. The majority of VAP participants are parents of children with disabilities who have encountered their own challenges when working toward best outcomes for their children in classroom settings.
The program was established in 2008 by then-Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD) trainee Meghan Burke, Ph.D., who currently serves as an associate professor of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“When we initially started the VAP, we wanted it to fill a void for families of children with disabilities. The motivation was to provide special education advocates for families of children with disabilities. My family’s experience advocating for my brother Ryan, with Down syndrome, initially motivated me to ensure other families had assistance with advocacy. Now, I have my own child with a disability. My experiences with him have just reinforced the need for parent advocacy.”
Since the beginning of the VAP, the program has “graduated” over 700 participants, who have taken the information and tools they’ve gained back to their homes across the state of Tennessee. When a call is placed through the VAP Hotline requesting an advocate for an IEP meeting, coordinators locate VAP graduates who live near the caller and connect the parties before the meeting begins.
“This year, we have 70 participants across the state and five professionals piloting the program in Texas,” said current VAP project coordinator Ellen Casale, Ed.S., a doctoral student in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Special Education. “Our graduates span over 40 counties and several advocate to numerous neighboring counties. We have advocates trained in Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Northern Alabama. Our participants have included parents, teachers, administrators, university staff, university professors, related service providers, grandparents, and self-advocates.”
Browse the Volunteer Advocacy Project 2018 graduation photo gallery here.
Participants take part in 40 hours of training, which focuses on various topics related to special education advocacy: evaluations and eligibility, IEPs, assistive technology, discipline provisions, behavior intervention plans, non-adversarial advocacy techniques, legislative change, least restrictive environment, and extended school year services.
Participation in the VAP has continually increased over the years, since many graduates refer other interested individuals in their area to participate in future trainings. The addition of multiple training locations has meant that advocates are more accessible in rural parts of the state where disability services can be sparse.
“The original VAP was held in the conference room of the Junior League Family Resource Center at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. It had 12 participants,” said Casale. “We now have upwards of 60-70 participants each year, and webcast to 6-10 sites throughout the state. We cover over 25 topics in our curriculum, and participants repeatedly request additional sessions year after year.”
Many VAP graduates choose to continue their education after they have graduated from the program, and VAP coordinators use their follow-up information to tailor the program to improve the outcomes for future VAP participants.
“Formally, we have shown the VAP graduates increased in both their special education knowledge and comfort in advocating; we have also examined which personal and VAP-related characteristics predict which graduates are likely to continue advocating,” said Casale. “In other ongoing studies, we are examining the educational-advocacy needs of parents who call in to the VAP coordinators, as well as the experiences of parents and advocates of the entire IEP process. On a more informal level, we continue to receive emails and calls for continued advocacy support often connecting graduates with educational and local resources.”
“The VAP maintains a hotline for parents or guardians to contact in order to access one of our trained graduates. Beginning in June 2018, The Arc Tennessee took over matching families with VAP graduates,” said Ellen Casale. “The Arc Tennessee has partnered with us to increase their capacity and to reach throughout the state by offering part-time employment, or volunteer advocacy work for our graduates. Further, The Arc Tennessee is able to provide ongoing professional development, mentorship, and resources to the graduates who have opted in to serve with them.
“This partnership serves as a win-win collaborative relationship to support families of people with disabilities throughout the state.”
For more information on the Volunteer Advocacy Project, including participating in upcoming cohorts, visit the VAP website or contact Ellen Casale or Brittney Goscicki. If you would like to request an advocate for a school-age child with disabilities, call The Arc Tennessee at (800) 835-7077 or (615) 248-5878, ext. 306, or email VAP@thearctn.org. Please provide your name, phone number, and location (city/county). A representative will return your call during business hours from Monday to Friday. Representatives make every effort to return calls within 24 hours.
Elizabeth Turner is associate program manager of VKC Communications and Dissemination.