The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) is an annual course designed to educate and equip interested individuals with the tools they need to become special education advocates for children with disabilities in Tennessee public schools. This fall, the VAP marks 15 years of training parents, caregivers, and educators to provide instrumental and affective support for families who request assistance during their child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with teachers and school administrators.
The VAP, housed under the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD), was developed in 2008 by then-doctoral student Meghan Burke*. Through conversations with community members and parents of children with disabilities, it became clear that there was a tremendous need for special education advocates. Interested to learn more, Burke attended a national conference about special education law and advocacy, where she learned about two new special education advocacy training models. After receiving a green light from her advisor, VKC UCEDD director of Research and Special Education professor Bob Hodapp, Ph.D., to develop one of the models for Tennessee families, Burke and Erin Richardson from The Arc of Davidson County developed and hosted the first Volunteer Advocacy Project cohort.
“Meghan was one of our first two long-term trainees for the VKC UCEDD, which had just begun in 2005,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., former VKC UCEDD director. “The need for advocates to partner with families around special education was recognized across the state. Meghan’s interest and passion in this area led to the development of this program which continues strong today.”
“Meghan was eloquent in her desire to keep the VAP going after graduation, and as the overseer during Meghan’s graduate career, I promised to try hard to keep it going,” said Hodapp. “Thanks to the hard work of several generations of my doctoral and master’s students, we have been able to do so.”
Throughout its 15-year lifespan, the VAP’s basic structure has stayed consistent: participants meet once weekly over the course of 12 weeks for a three-hour training session focused on numerous issues involved in the special education system, including advocacy, IEPs, and structural and procedural aspects of the entire IEP process.
“With each passing year, attendees get trained in ‘non-adversarial advocacy,’” said Hodapp. “And, as the VAP is run out of Nashville, we benefit enormously from a wide range of professionals who are the state’s experts on their respective issues.”
“The VAP has given us a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with Tennessee organizations including Disability Rights Tennessee, The Arc Tennessee and many local chapters, STEP, Tennessee’s inclusive higher education programs, and many other organizations,” added Elise McMillan. “They have helped with speakers, hosted participants and also helped publicize VAP.”
Even as the structure has stayed the same, the course has adapted from in-person classes to virtual learning to meet the needs of attendees, particularly those outside of the Nashville area.
“From its original 12 or so attendees—all of whom were crammed into a small conference room at the Children’s Hospital Family Conference room — the program each year now reaches 40-80 attendees who come from multiple sites across the state,” said Hodapp. “We routinely have attendees from Memphis and Chattanooga, with other sites coming in every few years from Knoxville, UT-Martin, Clarksville, Cookeville, Crossville, and the Tri-Cities.”
“The remote learning aspect allows the VAP to reach individuals across the state in rural, suburban, and urban communities,” added Meghan Burke. “In a state that is wide and includes two time zones, the VAP has still been able to successfully reach individuals in each of the grand regions of the state.”
And one of the lasting benefits of the Volunteer Advocacy Project is that the tools and information gained through the program are designed to be passed along in service to one’s community after the course been completed. Attendees pay a small fee up front to cover print materials (with scholarship opportunities available to defer costs), but the actual “payment” for participation is a promise to pay it forward.
“At the very first session each fall, we reiterate how we want each attendee to advocate for four additional families once they graduate from the program,” said Hodapp. “With many hundreds of graduates over 15 years, we feel that the VAP is making a difference to Tennessee’s families of children with disabilities.”
In addition to the positive changes the Volunteer Advocacy Project has seen in the community, the program has also led to other exciting developments within the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including the development of a more targeted training program for parents of transition-aged autistic youth.
“The VAP has led to Meghan and Julie Lounds Taylor’s VAP-Transition — VAP-T, now called ASSIST—program for parents of transition-aged youth with ASD,” said Hodapp. “The general model was similar: a 12-week, three-hour-per-week workshop series. But as Julie, Meghan, and I discussed early on, many of the specific issues involving youth with ASD, transition, and adult services differed from issues and concerns of the original VAP. Thus, while the general model is similar, it plays out very differently when considering services that aren’t school-based. Julie and Meghan have done a terrific job dealing with those difficult issues, now having expanded ASSIST to three states [Tennessee, Illinois, and Wisconsin].”
Burke added, “Since starting the VAP in Tennessee, it has been replicated in other states such as Illinois, South Carolina, New York, and Kentucky. There is even international interest to replicate the VAP in Taiwan! Further, the VAP has been adapted in two languages, Spanish and Korean. We are really proud that the VAP can be successfully adapted and replicated by community organizations across the country.”
*Meghan Burke, Ph.D., taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until very recently returning to Vanderbilt to accept a faculty position in Peabody College’s department of Special Education. Learn more about Burke’s new academic appointment and her history with family advocacy in this Research News at Vanderbilt article.