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Lay Advocacy Project Empowers Students with Disabilities and Trained Volunteers

Disability Rights Nebraska’s Inclusive Education Lay Advocacy Project empowers not only the families it seeks to assist but also the volunteers who make the program possible.

The project pairs children with disabilities and their families with volunteers who trained in advocating for inclusive education. Through this training, volunteers learn how to assist families in effectively communicating with schools, navigating individualized education programs, and enforcing their rights.

Angie Willey was one of the first volunteers with the Lay Advocacy Project. Angie’s personal experience with her son diagnosed with Autism and Down Syndrome inspired her to sign up to be an advocate.

“As a parent when you’re looking at this kind of training, you always look at it through the lens of your child first and then how you can spread it out,” Willey said. “You’ve got this fixed, now how can we fix it for this child, and how can we fix it for this child, so that every child benefits from inclusivity and a rich education.”

On the first day of her lay advocacy training, Angie brought yarn and a crochet hook in case she needed something to help her focus during the long sessions. She never once had to reach for her crochet supplies. “It was that engaging. It just held my interest and was something that gave me a new way to look at things,” she said.

Since beginning her lay advocacy journey, Willey has helped numerous families seek a more inclusive environment for their children by attending Individualized Education Program meetings, providing guidance, and suggesting more appropriate education options.

“You hear the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ line. And you know that’s maybe not always the best for individual students who need an individualized education plan,” Angie said. “So it’s really important to look at what the student needs to be successful, and that’s what it’s about.”

Not only do volunteers gain knowledge and training from the program, they also gain a support system of people going through similar things. Lay advocates from the program even joined Willey during an Individualized Education Program meeting for her son.

“We are here to help families. We’ve been through this training. And we help each other a lot.” Willey said.

The Inclusive Education Lay Advocacy Project began in 2018 and has now grown to 24 trained volunteer advocates. “Our intention is to develop a large network of individuals throughout the state who can rely on one another for help when they need it as well as help other families within their communities,” said Patricia Cottingham, the Inclusive Advocacy Project Coordinator at Disability Rights Nebraska.

This project is so important because of a move in school systems to isolate and segregate children with disabilities, Cottingham said. Through this project, parents are made aware of their rights so that they can better help schools develop or consider more creative ways of including students. 

“When you give our kids the opportunity and the support to go with it, they are most likely going to blow you away,” Cottingham said.

The next training for the program begins April 5th. It will consist of 12 virtual sessions held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The trainings are conducted by professionals and experts with experience in the special education field. A lot of work has gone into identifying experts who can share the information in understandable ways, Cottingham said. Topics include: how inclusion benefits children, how to develop appropriate educational supports, examination of Individualized Education Programs and the laws that guide it, and more.

“Yes. It’s a time commitment. And that is one of the best commitments you will make for yourself and for other families. It’s good training and the support system is there,” Willey said. “If you have the time and you can commit to it, you will not regret taking this training to help your child and others.”

The trainings and the accompanying materials are free to all participants, and individuals of all backgrounds and experience levels are encouraged to apply. Registration to volunteer for the program is open until April 1st.

“Run, don’t walk to your computer and sign up,” Willey said.

You can find more information on the Inclusive Education Lay Advocacy Program, including how to volunteer, here.