Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Volunteer Advocacy Project


Realizing the challenges 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. Since its inception in fall of 2008, the VAP has trained over 250 advocates across the state.

Components of The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP)

The VAP is comprised of two parts: (1) a 40-hour training, and (2) volunteering as an advocate for at least four families of children with disabilities.

  1. Forty-hour training: Every participant attends a 40-hour training. The training is held once per year in the fall. In the training, various topics related to special education advocacy are taught: evaluations and eligibility, 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. Reading assignments of relevant laws and regulations accompany each class session.
  2. Linkage with four families: After graduating from the class, each participant commits to working, at no cost, with four families of children with disabilities. This may range from informal support to more formal advocacy such as attending meetings with a family.

Expanding Across the State

The VAP has multiple sites across the state of Tennessee. The main site is in Nashville. From the Nashville site, the training is video-conferenced to other areas. In the past, the training has been video-conferenced to: Memphis, Martin, Mountain City, Jackson, Chattanooga, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, and Knoxville. For each region of the state, various agencies work with the volunteer advocates.

In order to participate in the training as a distance site, at least 3 participants per location must sign up. This promotes the development support networks throughout the state, in addition to training individuals.

Upcoming Training

The next session of the VAP will be in the Fall of 2014, held on Monday mornings from 8:00-11:00 a.m. CST for 11 weeks, from Sept. 8 through Nov. 17, 2014.

The training will be held on the following dates:

  • Sept. 8, 15, 22, 29
  • Oct. 6, 13, 20, 27
  • Nov. 3, 10, 17

The application is due by Aug. 25, 2014. Please visit the VKC Events page for more information.


Samantha Goldman is a doctoral student in Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities at Vanderbilt University. She received her Master’s of Education in Special Education at Vanderbilt University in 2009. Prior to coming to graduate school, Samantha worked as a special education teacher in public and private schools for 5 years. Samantha has been helping with the VAP training and research since 2012. Samantha’s research interests include parent-school collaboration, autism, and families of individuals with disabilities, especially those from culturally and economically diverse backgrounds.

Maria Mello is a doctoral student in Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities at Vanderbilt University. She received her Masters of Education in Special Education at Vanderbilt University in 2013. Maria is a graduate of the Volunteer Advocacy Project, Fall 2012. Prior to coming to Vanderbilt, Maria was a teacher’s assistant and afterschool teacher at the Brooklyn Waldorf School. In addition, Maria was a workshop leader in a residential community for adults with disabilities. Maria’s research interest include transition and post-secondary opportunities, independent living options for adults with disabilities, service accessibility for rural communities, and international special education, primarily in South America.


If you have questions about the training or need to contact a volunteer advocate, please contact:

Samantha Goldman
Peabody Box 228
230 Appleton Place
Nashville, TN 37203-5721
(615) 953-9623

Maria Mello
Peabody Box 228
230 Appleton Place
Nashville, TN 37203-5721

Collaborating Agencies


Prior to 1975, millions of children with disabilities were either entirely excluded or included in public schools to a limited degree. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandating that public schools not only educate students with disabilities but also provide them with necessary supports and services. Embedded within this law is parental involvement. Congress wrote parents into the legislation in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities would have advocates in securing their rights to a free, appropriate, public education.

This act has been reauthorized several times since 1975, and in 1990, it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Throughout all of these changes, parental involvement has remained and, in fact, been strengthened in the legislation. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to parents effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. For example, it is difficult for parents to learn their special education rights. The IDEA legislation is vast and dense. To have a solid working knowledge of it would require that parents stay updated on federal and state regulations and district interpretations of the law. In combination with the difficulty of learning the law, parents also have difficulty effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. It is difficult for parents to be assertive (not aggressive) in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the school; the power differential between the parent and the school, the emotion involved in discussing your child, and feelings of inadequacy are just a few factors contributing to parents’ difficulty in advocating for their children with disabilities.