The initiative to strengthen marriage uses a two-pronged approach to combat the rise in divorce. One prong is to develop mentors. The second is to conduct training classes, seminars and events.
There are many great social services provided in Cleveland, but there were few to none that directly addressed strengthening marriages and preventing divorce.
David Gray and Lavonna Cockerham talked to Brenda Hughes, executive director of Bradley Initiative for Church and Community; Reba Terry, executive director of The Caring Place; Brian Stewart, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County; and Matt Carlson, executive director of Habitat For Humanity of Cleveland; to try to get the pulse of the area.
Cockerham and her husband, the Rev. Larry Cockerham, have a finger on the pulse of a large artery as pastors of Living Word Church; Cleveland Net, a group of pastors, government officials, businesspersons and professionals; and other organizations contribute.
“We’ve got a lot of social programs for families, programs for teens, but we could only find one or two things directly addressing marriage strengthening,” said Gray, Marriage Works’ executive director.
Cockerham said each of the organizations addressed some component of family need, “but nobody just really honing in on healing marriages. It’s kind of like fixing the problem by just medicating the symptoms. We realized we’ve got to do something that goes directly to the heart of the issue. That way, we can connect with the others who are treating symptoms.”
For example, Gray said 17 percent of children in Tennessee who end up in juvenile court are from traditional, married homes where both the mother and father are present.
“That means 83 percent are coming from single-family homes, divorced homes or cohabitating homes. If you can reduce the divorce rate and strengthen marriages, indirectly, you are affecting teen delinquency,” he said.
Once Gray and Cockerham became aware of the need to focus on marriage, they contacted Julie Baumgardner, president of First Things First in Chattanooga.
First Things First is the result of a group of civic leaders who came together in 1997 to form a communitywide initiative to rebuild, renew and revitalize Chattanooga, beginning with the family. Those leaders recognized the strength of community and its future rested in the health of the family.
“We are, in a nutshell, trying to pattern ourselves after what First Things First has accomplished,” Gray said. “Julie even said to us that she had been waiting for someone in Cleveland to take this on.”
Cockerham has seen during her years of counseling others, who, as the economy worsened, could not seeking counseling because it costs money.
“They’ll sacrifice the very cornerstone of their lives trying to make enough money to feed the kids or whatever,” she said.
Cockerham said she has looked for ways to help churches accept some of the responsibility for helping families, but at the same time, she wanted to remove the fear or anxiety of going to church setting. There are others who would feel uneasy about going to a different pastor other than their own.
“You get into all kinds of complications that aren’t necessary. What we hope with this is churches and nonprofits organizations would help us create a pool of mentors and offer programs, provide instruction and hold conferences for Family Promise, the health department or whatever,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things we’ve seen done by First Things First that are so successful. That gets it out of the church.”
It’s not “preachy” program and it is not traditional counseling. Marriage Works equips people in churches and other social organizations to act as instructors and mentoring couples.
“It’s friendship. It’s mentoring. There is something in all of us that wants to believe that someone is doing what we’re trying much better, and would just want to be with us so we can learn from them without having to say, ‘I’m just a mess,’” Cockerham said. “People believe that if they are having to go to a counselor, it’s because they’re a wreck.”
She maintains that is a stereotypical image. The truth is, strong people who recognize they are in trouble seek counseling. Mentoring removes the stigma of counseling and most people begin to see the possibility for friendship.
“It’s more education. We believe that if you educate people on conflict resolution; if you can educate people on education skills; if you can educate people on all manner of these things, you will address about 75 to 80 percent of the issues somebody faces in a marriage,” Gray said. “If we could do a four-week class at The Caring Place one night a week for couples that want some marriage training, then we’re hitting low-income couples that cannot afford counseling.”
Gray knows training will not save all marriages but it means 75-80 percent of the marriages will be much stronger. Stronger marriages will reduce the divorce rate, and based on statistics, reduce the number of teen delinquents.
Cockerham said any typical couple could be strong in some areas and have something to give to another couple whose strengths lie in different areas.
“It preserves dignity. It preserves that sense of value. I may need help in this area, but I can help somebody else with that,” Cockerham said.
Marriage Works is not intended to address all the needs of families, but to work with other organizations to address the real needs of the community — and do it better in a “marriage” of sorts.