Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

"Committed?" he asks rhetorically, as he casts out over the swift water. "I better be, cause when there's a real struggle or when I have thoughts of cutting the line, it's the commitment that makes me stand fast. I hang in because I never want to have to say 'That was the one who got away.' So yes, I am committed to my marriage. Until death do us part."

The commercial then flashes a picture of the man with his left hand outstretched, a gold wedding band glinting in the summer sun.

"Commit to your marriage," he challenges.

The commercial from First Things First is just one way the non-profit group is working to educate and remind couples in Hamilton County, Tenn., about the importance of marriage.

Formed in 1997 to combat divorce and out-of-wedlock-birth rates nearly 50 percent higher than the national average, First Things First provides pre-marital classes, marriage strengthening events and classes for struggling couples, as well as relationship skills courses to high school students and fathering skills classes to new dads. Their newest fatherhood class in the jails is expected to reach more than 325 men this year.

First Things First began with a private grant, later received two government grants and continually fundraises.

It's an investment that's paying off, says Julie Baumgardner, executive director. Hamilton County's divorce rate has dropped 22 percent and teen pregnancy has dropped 44 percent. And a survey of couples in extreme crisis who took the "Maximize Your Marriage" class found that 92 percent — or 462 couples — made the decision to work on their marriage instead of divorce, sparing their children pain and ramifications like increased risks of delinquency, teen pregnancy and future divorces.

After one class for unmarried expectant parents, many of which are low-income, a couple came up to Baumgardner and told her, "Nobody's ever talked to us about the importance of marriage and why it matters to our child."

"What we realized is people don't know what they don't know," Baumgardner said. "We are just trying to reach out to people in every walk of life and help them understand the importance of marriage."

Relationship Skill Center

In the heart of Sacramento, Carolyn Curtis regularly gets calls from reporters wanting to talk about marriage. But they ask about people like Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They're not really interested in the pregnant, unmarried couples from poor neighborhoods who attend a 20-hour class that boosts their confidence in their abilities to be good parents, plan for the future and have a healthy family.

"About 92 percent of our participants report that their communication improved and they're talking more and arguing less," Curtis says. "Isn't that phenomenal?"

Curtis, the founder and executive director of the Relationship Skills Center, in Sacramento, Calif., is showing the power of engaging a community.

Over the last five years, her group has reached 750 families and nearly 1,200 high school students through parenting and relationship education classes.

Curtis' program relies on TANF funding to provide services (in the case of the parenting class it includes a transportation stipend, dinner, child care and a $100 gift card for parents who complete the class) as well as to hire part-time employees (also TANF recipients) who recruit for the pre-baby couples program from the waiting rooms of Sacrament's Department of Social Services.

Though their program gets referrals from more than 60 social service organizations around the city, there still is room to grow, Curtis said.

"It is so easy to meet people in the social service field and get them involved," Curtis said. "It's not enough. The business community is truly the leaders in our country and we need to get them to embrace this for it to go further. That's where I'm focusing my energy — broadening the number of people who need to know about this."

Before "I do"

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