Each year, gift contributions from individuals and organizations help to fuel the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center's mission by allowing it to expand its research, training, clinical services, and more.
Read the stories below to see how others have generously contributed to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
How the Landreths enabled important autism research.
Autism, like other developmental disabilities, affects not only a child but also the immediate family and extended family. Grandparents play important roles-loving caregivers, creative resource finders, dedicated advocates. And in some instances, grandparents may be able to provide gifts for research to find answers that may help create a better future for their grandchild and for other children with developmental disabilities. This is the story of the Robert E. Landreth Family.
As they searched for resources to help their daughter and son-in-law raise their son with autism, Mr. and Mrs. Landreth became connected with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. As an engineer and business man, Bob Landreth understood the crucial role of research and development. The family understood the need to ask large questions in understanding and treating ASD. In 2009, their extraordinary generosity and foresight were embodied in the Landreth Family Discovery Grant, which was directed to studying sensory processing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
With support from the Landreth Discovery Grant, Carissa Cascio, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, undertook research on the sense of touch in ASD, using both behavioral and brain imaging approaches. Since the early development of the touch system is guided by genes, she collaborated with Jeremy VeenstraVanderWeele, M.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry. Now, almost 2 years later, their pilot work has yielded significant findings and has helped them garner federal funding for larger studies to continue this research.
"At birth, the touch system is more developed than other senses," Cascio said. "Autism is developing in infancy, and touch plays a big role in social interaction between parents and infants. So differences in ways that infants with ASD experience touch can have serious cascading effects for later social development."
The Cascio Lab uses MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to look at the way that touch is processed in the brain. A better understanding of the brain systems involved may lead to identifying early markers for autism, allowing earlier diagnosis and intervention, as well as the possibility of more effective behavioral or pharmacological interventions.
The Cascio Lab also uses behavioral testing to look at reactions to two types of touch. The first is "social touch," where a child is touched by another person, e.g., lotion is rubbed on the skin, or a hand is stroked with a soft cloth. The second is an "internally controlled touch," or "nonsocial touch," where a child has control of what touches the skin and no other person is involved.
Using MRI, Cascio looked at two brain pathways that are known to be important in conveying sensory signals and measured how strong, or effective, those pathways were in conveying sensory information. She found that weakness in those pathways was associated with hypersensitivity to social touch, but not to nonsocial touch, in young children with ASD.
The Landreth Family Discovery Grant provided funding to enable Cascio to use the practice scanner and the MRI scanners in the Vanderbilt Institute for Imaging Science. Since not all the children with ASD in the study could do a successful MRI scan, the Discovery Grant allowed the collection of behavioral data on all children. While MRI data collection is ongoing, behavioral findings will be published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. The grant also supported Cascio’s collaboration with Veenstra-VanderWeele to investigate how genetic variation may affect defensiveness to touch.
"MRI technology is expensive, and even with our best guess of which children we’ll be able to scan, given the confining space and scanner noise, sometimes we lose data," Cascio said. "This support was critical to me as a young investigator, allowing me to conduct the study and to gather preliminary data, which has helped me garner external NIH funding."
With premilinary data from the Landreth Discovery Grant, which demonstrated the promise of this research approach, Cascio has received a National Institute of Mental Health grant of $750,000 to expand this research. Veenstra-VanderWeele has received a National Institute of Mental Health 5-year grant of $1.25 million. This investment return is 20:1. What the investment may yield in diagnosing and treating ASD? Incalculable.
VKC Leadership Council member Carol Henderson has been a long-term supporter of inclusive education for students with disabilities. In 1996, she and her husband endowed the Britt Henderson Training Series for Educators in memory of their son Britt. This year, Henderson has given a significant 4-year financial gift to the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program, a 2-year certificate program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.
Through the Martin McCoy-Jespersen Discovery Grants in Positive Psychology, Martin’s parents are providing others "a way to be more like Martin" and for each to find, "in their own way, the fullness of life."
Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the first postsecondary certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities in Tennessee, received a generous gift from longtime supporter, friend, and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Leadership Council member Linda Brooks and her family.
Andrea McDermott Sanders, Vanderbilt special education alumna (M.Ed. 2006) and VKC Leadership Council member, completed her eighth Country Music Marathon in 2012 to raise funds for the Team William Scholarship Fund for students in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Reading Clinic. Andrea's efforts have raised more than $180,000 since 2004 to provide financial support for students with Down syndrome attending the Reading Clinic. A former reading tutor, Andrea established the scholarship in honor of William Spickard, one of her students. William's family has partnered with Andrea in raising support. In 2009, Anna Spickard, William's older sister, organized the Team William 5k,
an additional fundraising event. In 2012, they funded the Team William Discovery Grant
to advance research on Down syndrome.
Grants from our corporate donors have the ability to improve the lives of children with disabilities and families in Tennessee. We would like to express our gratitude to the Nashville Predators Foundation for awarding the Vanderbilt Kennedy Reading Clinic with a grant that allowed eight students to participate in the program on scholarship. Funding like this is essential in order to provide critical learning intervention to youth who do not have the financial means to attend the clinic. We are grateful to the Nashville Predators Foundation for the hand they lent in improving children’s lives in our community.
Grants from our corporate donors have the ability to improve the lives of multiple children in Middle Tennessee. One child who benefitted from the generosity of Dollar General is nine-year-old McKenzie. Because of the scholarship they provided, she was able to enroll in the Reading Clinic at a critical point in her learning.
Robb and Mary Jane Swaney were able to apply their life passions to the support of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center mission. Robb, an architect and committed philanthropist, brought to life a specially designed, accessible playground where young children with and without disabilities can now play together. Mary Jane, an artist, supports programs that nurture budding artists with developmental disabilities.
See how one Nashville couple was able to help teach people living with developmental disabilities how to use music therapeutically, while also supporting research in human development and training for professionals in the community.