A team of University of Georgia faculty in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences aims to provide Georgia couples with healthy relationship skills and financial guidance with the help of a five-year, $6.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The team will collaborate with UGA Cooperative Extension and a network of established state and local partners to deliver the evidence-based Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education programming to couples in 60 counties across Georgia who are experiencing economic stress and are relationally vulnerable, including those who are military-connected.
The project also will provide financial literacy programming with a goal of positively impacting at least 2,250 low-resource and underserved couples aged 18 and older by 2025 with both in-person and online delivery.
The funding allows the team to expand on the success of the Fostering Relationship and Economic Enrichment Project (Project F.R.E.E.) that reached nearly 1,400 families involved in the child-welfare system in northeast Georgia through a campus-community partnership initiative from 2015 through 2020.
“Our community and state partners all contributed to the success of Project F.R.E.E. and were critical to helping us secure the new grant,” said Ted Futris, professor in the FACS Department of Human Development and Family Science and UGA Extension family life specialist who serves as project director. “Our ultimate goal is to offer a quality service that promotes couple stability that communities can adopt as an ongoing resource even after the grant ends.”
UGA Extension and community-based “dissemination centers” in 14 predominantly rural counties will deliver programming to couples, including those connected to nine military installations throughout the state.
The majority of the counties reached by the program are rural and exhibit persistent poverty. Children in rural counties are particularly at risk due to patterns of economic inequality and social stratification, Futris said.
According to data from the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, Georgia ranks 38th out of 50 states in various child well-being indicators.
“The dissemination centers are strategically placed to serve our target population, located in both urban and rural counties, near the state’s largest military installations and in counties with high levels of need,” Futris said.
Each center will provide workshops to couples using the Elevate relationship-education curriculum, developed by Futris, which has been found to positively influence changes in couples’ behavior and overall relationship quality. According to one of Project F.R.E.E.’s past participants, the program experience “saved our marriage.”
Couples also will have the opportunity to develop skills for managing finances and building wealth through the financial-literacy education program, Discovering Money Solutions, developed by team members Joseph Goetz and Lance Palmer, both professors in the FACS Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics.
UGA Extension will supplement this training with tip sheets and additional resources on financial literacy. Free tax assistance will be provided through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program administered by UGA faculty and students and led by team member Joan Koonce, professor and UGA Extension financial planning specialist.
The team plans to start recruiting couples in February 2021, with programming set to begin in the spring.
Among the community-based partners is the Georgia Center for Opportunity in Gwinnett County, a nonpartisan organization that conducts public policy research and mobilizes community resources to address education, employment and family issues.
“A collaboration of this magnitude will put us in the position to transform lives and create a blueprint for families in the near future,” said Joyce Mayberry, vice president of family for the Georgia Center for Opportunity.
Other community-based centers are the Economic Opportunity Authority in Chatham County; Brightpaths/Prevent Child Abuse Athens in Clarke County; Overcomers House Inc. in Gwinnett County; Refresher Community Inc. in Henry County; Lanier County Family Connection; and Community Action for Improvement Inc. in Troup County.
UGA Extension offices in Colquitt, Crisp, Dougherty, Houston, Monroe, Muscogee, Richmond and Ware counties also will serve as dissemination centers.
State partners on the project are the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Georgia Family Connection Partnership and Strengthening Families Georgia.
Other co-investigators for the project include Evin Richardson, Catherine O’Neal and Jerry Gale in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, along with Karen DeMeester at the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government and Kristi Farner with UGA Extension.
The federal grant project is administered by the Administration for Children and Families Office of Family Assistance.
“The need is great,” said Rhea Bentley, Muscogee County Extension agent. “This project will give couples tools they need to be successful and have healthier relationships.”