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 in Tennessee. Since its inception in fall of 2008, The VAP has trained more than 250 advocates across the state.

Components of The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP)

The VAP training is comprised of two parts: (1) a 40-hour training, and (2) the linkage of the volunteer advocate with four families of children with disabilities.

  1. Forty-hour training: Every participant attends a 40-hour training. 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 (completing the 40 hours of instruction), each participant commits to working, at no cost, with four families of children with disabilities.

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.


For parents of a son/daughter with an autism spectrum disorder who is leaving high school in Spring 2016 or 2017, click here for information on the Volunteer Advocacy Project-Transition.

Upcoming Training

The next VAP Training will be in the Fall 2016. The training will be 12 sessions on Tuesday mornings, starting Aug. 30 to Nov. 15, from 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. CST (10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. EST).

Application for VAP Fall 2016

The application for the VAP Fall 2016 has closed.

Are you interested in the VAP and missed this year’s training? Please complete the following survey form with your information and we will be in touch in May 2017 about future VAP training options for next fall 2017.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us using the information found in the "Contact" box below.

VAP Resources for Participants and Graduates

For more information on the Volunteer Advocacy Project, including resources for current participants and graduates of the VAP, visit vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/vap/.


Maria P. Mello is a doctoral student in Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities at Vanderbilt University. She received her Master of Education degree 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.

Kelli Sanderson is a doctoral student in the Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities program at Vanderbilt University. She received her master's degree in Special Education from California State University at Long Beach in 2015. Kelli participated in the Volunteer Advocacy Project in the Fall 2015. Prior to her graduate studies at Vanderbilt, Kelli worked as a behavior interventionist and teacher serving students with moderate/severe disabilities in Los Angeles, CA. Kelli’s research interests include family-practitioner collaboration, transition services for students with severe disabilities, postsecondary education, and disability advocacy.


If you have questions about the training, please contact:

Maria P. Mello

Kelli Sanderson
(615) 601-0825

If you would like to request an advocate, please e-mail or call Kelli Sanderson. When you call, please leave a voicemail with your name and contact information and we will return your call as soon as possible.