The mission of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is to facilitate discoveries and best practices that make positive differences in the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families. In order to ensure that such work continues for years to come, the VKC University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) and the Vanderbilt Consortium LEND seek and prepare young professionals who want to learn how best to serve children and adults.
Both programs pride themselves in the diversity of trainees they see every year as well as the high-caliber work that the trainees provide to the VKC, their universities, and their communities.
During their time as trainees, these students take part in individual and group projects where they go out into the community, work with Tennesseans with disabilities, and practice their skills. By the time they graduate from their respective programs, both UCEDD and LEND trainees have developed evidence-based practices to take with them as they pursue their respective careers.
UCEDD Trainee Program
UCEDD trainees are Vanderbilt students working with VKC-affiliated faculty members who serve as mentors. Their training programs are individualized to provide the trainees with experience in disability-related research, training, services, or dissemination.
UCEDD trainee Elizabeth Biggs is a fourth-year doctoral student in Special Education. Before arriving at Vanderbilt for Ph.D. studies, she moved to rural New Mexico to serve as a special education teacher on a Navajo reservation. Her experiences in this community helped her see how the integration of strong research and effective practice could make a profound difference on the learning outcomes of students who are so often overlooked or on the margins.
Earlier this year Biggs was awarded TASH’s 2016 Alice H. Hayden Emerging Leader Award. Special Education professor Erik Carter, Ph.D., serves as her doctoral advisor and nominated her for the award.
“Elizabeth has accrued deep experience in the areas of research, effective professional development, and evidence-based practices for students with severe disabilities,” Carter said. “She is driven by a deep passion for ensuring that the very best of what we know works penetrates the practices of schools all across the country…. I am convinced she will leave a lasting mark on the field of severe disabilities—as a scholar, teacher trainer, and advocate.”
Fellow Vanderbilt Special Education doctoral student and UCEDD trainee Maria Mello has served families of individuals with disabilities both here at Vanderbilt and abroad. In an ongoing, qualitative study, Mello interviewed parents of children with autism who developed an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) initiative in their town in Brazil. She is currently transcribing, translating, and qualitatively analyzing these data, which will show how services become available internationally and for families from different cultural backgrounds.
Back in Tennessee, Mello worked closely with Next Steps at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt’s inclusive higher education program. She facilitated a Next Chapter Book Club, led independent living seminars, and developed and taught a financial literacy seminar for Next Steps students. She also supervised Vanderbilt master’s students during their practicum placements. Currently, Mello serves as director of the annual Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP), a 12-week, 36-hour seminar that trains 25-30 advocates in law and advocacy both on site and via webcast to other sites across the state.
“As VAP Director, Maria has been instrumental in growing the numbers of participants and the diversity of families served,” said Bob Hodapp, Ph.D., professor of Special Education and Mello’s doctoral advisor. “Maria is a bright, productive, and committed student who weaves her research interests with identified needs in the disability community.”
Vanderbilt Consortium LEND
The Vanderbilt Consortium LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) provides interprofessional leadership training for advanced graduate students and postgraduate professionals representing various fields such as audiology, medicine, social work, and speech-language pathology, among others. University professionals from these disciplines represent the core faculty and provide mentorship in the implementation of the training program. A parent/family advisor serves on the faculty as well.
LEND trainees are enrolled in programs at Middle and East Tennessee universities, including Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, Tennessee State, UT School of Social Work, East Tennessee State, and Milligan College.
“Through participating in the LEND core curriculum and leadership series and interacting with faculty and other graduate and posdoctoral students, LEND trainees develop skills that will assist them in providing exemplary health care services to individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities and their families,” said Evon Batey Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychology and Psychiatry, UCEDD training director, and LEND associate director. “This should also help them in playing future leadership roles in the field of maternal and child health, both in clinical care and public policy.”
Nathan Fields is a Vanderbilt LEND trainee in Special Education. Before coming to Vanderbilt, Fields was part of a Hong Kong-based nongovernment organization called Jian Hua that had numerous community development programs throughout China. As an associate of Jian Hua for 5 years, he learned Chinese and developed relationships with students and caregivers who were committed to enriching the quality of life of students with disabilities. His time in China helped him realize the privilege of access to special education resources, and he found a calling to grow as a professional in the field.
“Nathan brings a wealth of life experience in working with children with special needs and a strong commitment to social justice,” said Lee. “Related to this, he spent a number of years in China and would contribute his understanding of best practices in international community development work, cultural and linguistic competency, and leadership experience in addressing the complex learning needs of children and in developing evidence-based teacher trainings.”
When East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Special Education master’s student and LEND trainee Daniel Scherer-Emunds is not working toward his graduation in May 2017, you can probably find him at Jazzy Acres Alpaca Farm in Leicester, NC, tending to farm animals.
“We have 33 alpaca, 2 Great Pyrenees dogs, and 10 chickens. It was not something I ever planned on doing, but my girlfriend–who is interested in agriculture–had a family friend looking for help on the farm at the same time we were looking for a place to live. It was one of those life situations that just worked out! I also use the farm as a space to provide vocational experience to some local young men I work with, who have autism and intellectual disabilities. I bring them out periodically throughout the week to help with animal feeding and care, daily farm chores, and other special projects.”
Both Fields and Scherer-Emunds have benefitted from working with LEND faculty and fellow trainees while pursuing their postgraduate degrees.
“The LEND program appealed to me when I saw that it was a consortium of professionals working together to empower caregivers working with children with special needs,” said Fields. “I was fortunate to have Erik Carter as my advisor who listened to me share my heart of wanting more experience in a transdisciplinary community and told me about this network that connected a number of different students from a variety of schools in the Nashville/Johnson City areas. I was thrilled and this community has been one of my most rewarding pieces of my time at Vanderbilt.”
“Dr. Cindy Chambers, my Special Education program advisor and one of my professors at ETSU, was heavily involved in bringing the LEND program to Johnson City this year,” added Scherer-Emunds. “Essentially, I want to become a more well-rounded professional and advocate for individuals with disabilities. I have already learned an invaluable amount from this group of talented and passionate students and faculty members. I believe collaboratively building fundamental knowledge of these inter-related fields and hearing unique perspectives on disability issues will have a lasting positive impact on my career. “
The UCEDD is funded by the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, AIDD Grant No. 90DD0807-02-00. The Vanderbilt Consortium LEND is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under grant number T73MC00050.
Elizabeth Turner is program coordinator of VKC Communications.
Pictured top of page: LEND leadership training meeting of trainees from VU/VUMC, Belmont, TSU, and UT-Nashville. Photo by Susan Urmy / Vanderbilt University.