As one of six counties in Florida, Manatee County is offering a free class aimed at strengthening relationships.
“The whole goal is to reduce partner violence, reduce rates of child abuse and reduce divorce rates as well,” said Jessica Vernold, who works at Manatee County’s UF/IFAS Extension Office.
Thanks to a five-year $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Manatee County was selected by the University of Florida to offer the SMART Couples Florida program.
“The project’s goal is to strengthen marriages, relationships and families among Florida residents across ethnicities and income levels,” according to the SMART Couples website.
Manatee County joins Alachua, Duval, Palm Beach, Citrus and Santa Rosa counties in offering several different classes, including a premarital program as well as a relationship enhancement program.
“It’s really all based on really solid research,” said Victor Harris, UF/IFAS assistant professor/extension specialist. “They are getting the things that they need.”
While Manatee County has partnered with other organizations including Salvation Army and Drug Court to offer the courses, they also offer the courses, which last five weeks, at the county’s extension office, 1303 17th St. W., Palmetto. The next series begins the week of Aug. 14.
“Those organizations help us to send referrals,” said Nelly Nelson, UF/IFAS Manatee County’s family and consumer science agent. “They see who they are serving who will benefit with the program.”
The courses are open to all couples, Vernold said.
“It’s just improving relationships and strengthening,” she said.
Florida has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation and fragmented families in Florida cost taxpayers $2 billion a year, according to Harris.
“Fragmented families are an issue socially, emotionally and also economically,” he said. “The focus isn’t just on marriage. It’s about healthy relationships and what that looks like regardless of type and structure.”
As the grant reaches the end of the second year, Manatee County officials are hoping to expand the reach of the program.
“We need to do more outreach in community,” Nelson said.
For more information, go to SMARTcouples.org or call the extension office at 941-722-4524.