Celebrating 25 Years of Va-LEND and Beyond

By Jennifer Drummond

September 19, 2022

 A Chinese proverb states that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is now. The Va-LEND (Virginia Leadership in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program was established  over 25 years ago and is planting new seeds for the next generation of maternal and child health leaders. It all began with recognizing an opportunity. “Many states with University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) had LEND programs, and Virginia did not.  Ann Cox, Ph.D., RN, FAAN and Fred Orelove, Ph.D., thought VCU was ready for Va-LEND given its emphasis and strengths in interdisciplinary training,” said Joann N. Bodurtha MD, MPH, FAAP, FACMG, the first Va-LEND Director and who served in that role until 2011.

In 1995 the grant for Va-LEND was submitted and awarded from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB), for Va-LEND’s interdisciplinary education program. According to Janet Willis, MPH, RD, who was the first Assistant Director for Va-LEND and who served from 1996 to 2015, said when the grant was awarded in 1995, they had only a six month period to develop the courses and build the infrastructure for the training program. The first class of trainees enrolled in 1996 were graduate students that included the following disciplines: physical therapy (1), nursing (1) and psychology (2). “Later we enrolled family trainees which really enhanced our program and brought new perspective to our training,” said Willis. Va-LEND, which is still a 12-24 month program, now includes all types of students, has 16 disciplines and graduated 19 trainees last April.

However, this might not have happened without Dr. Cox, Dr. Orelove and Dr. Bodurtha, who all came together to submit the initial grant for Va-LEND under the Partnership for People With Disabilities (PPD) at VCU. Dr. Cox, the primary writer for the grant was also the Associate Director for UCEDD at the Partnership, where Dr. Orelove, was the Executive Director at the time. Dr. Bodurtha was the Clinical Director in the Department of Genetics at VCU. She said the Va-LEND program started with one 3-4 hour in-person block of interactive classes each week, one afternoon interdisciplinary team training clinic each month in a community setting  at VCU, above the post office on Marshall St. in the VMI Building. The Va-LEND administrative office is still at the same location except on a different floor. “One course, Interdisciplinary Teamwork was taught off campus in a public school building for several years. The VCU OT Department was on the 4th floor of the VMI Building - the entire floor had faculty offices and classrooms. OT shared classroom space with us as well, until their offices were moved. Va-LEND had nursing faculty on our grant, and the Partnership had strong ties with the VCU School of Nursing (SON) through several collaborative projects. These valuable relationships allowed us to work with the SON to schedule classroom space late in the day when it did not interfere with other nursing classes. Most of our classes started at 4:00 pm in the afternoon,” explained Willis.

Over the years Va-LEND consistently had trainees who were interested in participating in the program but lived outside of the Richmond, Virginia area. To meet the needs of these trainees and to increase Va-LEND’s reach, the program used distance learning technology to bring the students into the classrooms virtually. Va-LEND found that it was  better able to reach trainees throughout the state using an online format. In the last iteration of the 5-year grant it was decided to offer the program solely online.

Dr. Orelove shared what he believed the impact of Va-LEND has been. “My sense is that Va-LEND increased the level of awareness of the needs of families of individuals with disabilities and special health care needs. I also believed Va-LEND dramatically increased interdisciplinary communication and relationships across departments and, in fact, I think the program set a model for later interdisciplinary initiatives at VCU. The clinics provided critical support to individuals with special health care needs and their families in our community.”

As part of growth and development, there have been changes in leadership, faculty, an increase in the number of trainees and how the program is carried out. However, at its core and throughout its humble beginnings, Va-LEND has always been about the disability community and training the next generation of leaders. We are looking forward to the next 25 years.