Two Sullivan Foundation partner schools—The University of Virginia (UVA) and Mary Baldwin University (MBU)—are set to lead a collaborative effort to expand healthcare options for children living with autism and other developmental disabilities in a region where such services are scarce.

The UVA-MBU partnership is the foundation of Blue Ridge LEND, a multi-year program made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The new program will join a national network of 60 Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) programs across the country. The $2.2M grant establishes a graduate-level training program with an interdisciplinary focus and emphasis on leadership development in the field.

The program will combine faculty expertise in occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) at Mary Baldwin with nursing, psychology, special education, speech-language pathology, and medicine at UVA. Faculty and trainees from family and self-advocacy disciplines will contribute lived experience and expertise.

Focused on the rural Blue Ridge and Appalachian region of Virginia and bordering states, Blue Ridge LEND positions training as an effective strategy to expand the field’s workforce, advocate for best practices and innovations, and increase capacity for vital services.

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Micah Mazurek, clinical psychologist and Novartis U.S. Foundation Professor of Education at UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, and Dr. Beth Ellen Davis, developmental and behavioral pediatrician and professor at the UVA School of Medicine, will serve as co-directors of the Blue Ridge LEND.

“We couldn’t be more excited about the potential for this new program to improve the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities across our region,” Mazurek said. “Blue Ridge LEND will equip the next generation of leaders and professionals from across disciplines with the skills they need to advance the field and improve systems of care.”

After receiving the grant earlier this summer, work on Blue Ridge LEND training initiatives officially began on August 1 and will be funded for five years.

“The brand-new Blue Ridge LEND joins a strong network of established LENDs across the country to support children with disabilities through enhanced collaboration, discovery, dissemination, consultation and advocacy,” Davis said. “Its program is tremendously fortunate to include so many enthusiastic, experienced faculty at UVA and MBU, to ensure its success for years to come.”

Lisa Shoaf, dean of Mary Baldwin’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, worked with physical therapy student trainees in the VCU LEND program as a faculty member before coming to MBU in 2012.

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“The new Blue Ridge LEND partnership brings together the talents and expertise of both universities right at the heart of our mission—preparing students to work with professionals in multiple healthcare fields and provide care here in our community,” Shoaf said.

Now in motion, a domino effect of benefits stemming from Blue Ridge LEND can lead to eventual improvements in entire systems of care and important advances in neurodevelopmental practice, research, and understanding, Shoaf added.

MBU professors Pamela Stephenson (OT) and Carolyn Moore (PT), who share expertise in working with children in their fields, will join the Blue Ridge LEND faculty and teach as part of the partnership.

Starting this academic year, second-year students in MBU’s PT and OT graduate programs will join their UVA counterparts in medicine, nursing, psychology, special education and speech-language pathology as LEND fellows, taking part in weekly interdisciplinary classes and clinical work on all aspects of neurodevelopmental and related disabilities, as well as leadership and research. Those students will graduate with a special LEND certificate that will open doors for them in the highly competitive field of pediatric care.

In addition to this year-long experience for LEND fellows, the Blue Ridge LEND will offer a wide range of training and continuing education opportunities for students and practicing professionals across the region.

In addition to specialized skills, faculty and clinical partners at both universities will help empower LEND trainees to envision themselves as future healthcare leaders who will innovate and advocate for broader systems change in the disabilities field.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Mary Baldwin University website.

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