Volunteer Advocacy Project trains family advocates to serve across Tennessee

VAP nashville graduate group

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Volunteer Advocacy Project saw its fifteenth cohort of volunteers graduate from the biannual training program on November 15. These graduates are now educated, ready, and willing to serve families of individuals with disabilities across Tennessee who may seek advocacy assistance in their school systems.

Realizing the challenges that parents face in advocating for their children with disabilities, the Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) trains interested individuals to become special education advocates so they can provide instrumental and affective support to families of children with disabilities in Tennessee. Since its inception in Fall 2008, the VAP has trained more than 250 advocates across the state. The trainings are conducted once a week for 12 weeks at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville, with live-stream capabilities for VAP students in locations across West and East Tennessee.

This fall, 67 people graduated from the program, hailing from Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville, Martin, Smyrna, Murfreesboro, and Hardeman County.

“The program has grown and has expanded to new regions of the state,” said Maria Mello, a doctoral student in Special Education and VAP co-coordinator. “We edit the curriculum and update all our slides as new information is available and changes are made. Our speakers always bring in their area of expertise to the presentations. The graduation speakers bring something new to each VAP cohort. This year we had a self-advocate panel.”

Trainees learn valuable information on key disability legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act, which ensures that students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) tailored to their individual needs. These tools are helpful when graduates advocate for families during Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. During these meetings, advocates may work alongside parents of children with disabilities, teachers, school administrators, and other professionals to make sure a particular student is receiving the accommodations and services he/she needs to get a quality education within the public school system.

After completing the program, each VAP graduate is required to serve four families in their area. The VAP team – Mello and fellow coordinator Kelli Sanderson, another Special Education doctoral student – keeps a record of VAP graduates and their locations across Tennessee in case a family calls seeking a referral for advocacy guidance in their particular area.

“If someone needs an advocate, they can contact us at (615) 601-0825, and Kelli will match the family with an advocate,” said Mello. “We ask that if they need someone to attend an IEP meeting, they request an advocate at least 2 weeks in advance. This gives our advocates time to get to know the family and the needs of the family/student. If there isn’t an available graduate in their area, we can connect them with advocate who can speak to them over the phone.”

Participation in the VAP has 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.

“Since completing the training in the Fall 2015, I’ve helped more than 30 families effectively advocate for their children, said VAP graduate Cathy Harper. “I’ve assisted with reviewing records, composing letters and research additional resources, formulating strategy, and attending IEP meetings so families can exercise their rights under IDEA and secure the Free and Appropriate Public Education guaranteed to their children. Above all, I’ve encouraged each and every one of them to get the same education I have and register for the course. I am 100-percent convinced that VAP is a vital necessity to gain the knowledge and understanding to negotiate the special education process in Tennessee.  I feel strongly that every parent, teacher and administrator in this state, who has a child or student with special needs, challenges or differences invest in this game changing course!”

Facilitating the VAP program each semester and seeing the growth have been a rewarding aspect of Mello’s doctoral studies.

“I really enjoy facilitating the VAP each week. I think the VAP can empower people to advocate for the needs of students in special education,” Mello said. “The most meaningful part of the VAP, to me, is the supportive community that is built throughout the sessions. I also think the various and diverse experiences the participants bring to the VAP training are invaluable. I definitely can see myself continuing a training like the VAP wherever I end up after I graduate.”

For more information on the VAP, visit the VAP website.

Elizabeth Turner is program coordinator for VKC Communications.

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