The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded East Carolina University a $3.1 million grant through the Healthy Marriage Initiative to develop and implement a community-based education program for National Guard and other reserve component couples.
The 12-hour program, Essential Life Skills for Military Families will help these citizen-soldier couples meet the challenges of extended separations by improving their skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, communication, resource management, and parenting.
The five-year grant will underwrite the development of a research-based curriculum, offered first as a pilot program through North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Services, then as an ongoing program in communities across the country. The low-cost skills training will teach couples how to build “protective factors” into their relationships to buffer the risk factors that accompany mobilization and deployment.
The curriculum is based on “Active Military Life Skills,” a program developed by the Texas-based Active Relationship Center, and supplemented to address additional issues of concern to citizen-soldier families.
Since September 11, 2001, more than 259,000 National Guard and 152,000 Army Reserve members have been mobilized – and there is every indication that these numbers will continue to grow.
In addition, many citizen-soldiers have been mobilized and deployed in combat more than once.
“We’re pleased that East Carolina University has the opportunity to actively support the dedicated men and women who serve in the North Carolina National Guard and other reserve components of the armed forces,” said ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard.
“Despite the demands we place on them as our first responders in the defense of this country, our citizen-soldiers do a remarkable job. This program is a targeted effort to support them in building and maintaining strong marriages and families.”
“One of the most effective ways to sustain a strong marriage during times of stress and separation is to build resiliency into the relationship well before deployment,” said Dr. Linda Robinson, ELSMF’s director and a professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Relations at ECU.
“Families know that instinctively,” she said, “but they don’t always have access to teachers and classes in their communities that understand the specific stresses on military couples.”
Cooperative Extension instructors will receive training through the program to help them understand military family life and the day-to-day realities facing citizen-soldier families. Dr. Wayne Matthews, an associate professor of family relations at NCSU and content specialist for the Cooperative Extension program, called ELSMF “a natural match” for Cooperative Extension.
“Our instructors already teach a wide range of classes in related topic areas, including stress management, family relations, interpersonal communication, and family resource management,” he said.
“This program builds on those themes, and makes them relevant specifically to Guard and Reserve families.”
ELSMF staff will also work in close cooperation with the extensive family support programs offered to service members by the National Guard, Reserves and other military organizations. The N.C. National Guard operates five Family Assistance Centers across the state to assist and support military families.
“We’re fortunate to have strong, high-quality support programs in North Carolina, like the Guard’s Family Assistance Centers,” Robinson said. “We see an opportunity to enhance and extend those programs by leveraging state and national resources, such as the Cooperative Extension programs that are available in virtually every county in every state in the country.”
ECU will take advantage of its existing relationship with another North Carolina-based resource, the Citizen- Soldier Support Program, a national program spearheaded by UNC – Chapel Hill in partnership with ECU, NCSU, Virginia Tech, UNC-TV, and Bryn Mawr College. That program, now in its second year, works in communities throughout the state to build bridges between military family readiness organizations and local civilian agencies and resources.
Dr. Elizabeth Carroll, ELSMF’s operations director, said it’s important to use a collaborative approach in developing and implementing the program.“The military understands its families, and knows firsthand the challenges of mobilization and deployment. Universities have access to the most current research in education and curriculum development. Cooperative Extension has hands-on expertise in community education, as well as dedicated teachers and a nationwide network,” she said. “By working together we can create a strong program that builds and supports strong families.”
National Guard officials welcome the support of this community-based program to complement the services and information available to military families through existing National Guard “Marriage Enrichment Seminars” and other programs offered through the N.C. National Guard State Family Readiness office. North Carolina alone has more than 25,000 National Guard and Reserve members, more than three-quarters of whom are married or in long-term relationships that may lead to marriage.
“National Guard families do a great job of coping with the demands of mobilization and deployment. We have had more than 10,000 N.C. National Guardsmen deploy since Sept. 11, 2001,” said Capt. Dale Cowan, N.C. National Guard State Family Program director. “We’re pleased to see additional support in the community – particularly from educators – working hard to enhance available tools for our families, helping them strengthen their marriage and family bonds.”