By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Group aims to strengthen marriages
In a day and age when half of all marriages end in divorce, Jim Steward of Ceres is hoping to improve the odds of success. He is executive director of the Stanislaus County Healthy Marriage Coalition, a local group working with a number of churches and community agencies to strengthen marriages and family relationships.

"The Coalition has a number of different methods that we use to build up marriages and build up families," said Steward, a marriage educator for 15 years. "We offer relationship skills training from everything to teens to empty-nesters through classes. We also do that through training of leaders."

A number of churches are teaming up with the Coalition, among them Valley View Church of the Nazarene in Ceres. Pastor Craig Hunnel is hosting a program on Thursday night - Valentine's Day - called "The Great Date Night" as an introduction to the "10 Great Dates" program which starts in March. Valley View Church of the Nazarene, corner of Whitmore and Faith Home roads, will provide refreshments and free child-care and show a brief video introducing 10 Great Dates. Then the couple can go off on a date and leave their kids until 9 p.m. A list of questions designed to spark discussion will be handed out. Couples may also hang out at the church to interact or play games or watch videos. "It's kind of an evening at a Starbucks kind of thing," said Hunnel.

The 10 Great Dates program will take place on Fridays beginning March 14 and includes a workbook. The intent of the program is to help couples to:

• Improve on communication skills;

• Process anger and resolve conflicts;

• Set realistic goals for the marriage;

• Build a creative sex life;

• Develop spiritual intimacy;

• Balance busy lifestyles.

Each evening of 10 Great Dates will allow couples to talk about thought-provoking themes, said Steward. Couples will first meet as a group to watch the video and be sent out on their own date. The first night's theme will be on remembering what kindled the relationship.

"We hope they'll engage in those questions, but the fact that they're even coming and out on a date is a good sign," said Hunnell. The hope is that the date will involve face to face communication instead of non-interactive things like watching a movie.

Steward is encouraging as many churches in the county to get involved and offer the 10 Great Dates program. On Feb. 15 Calvary Temple in Modesto is starting one and on Feb. 22, Victory Assembly of God, 1960 E. Hatch Road, Ceres, launches its program.

Steward is a Christian who considers his role as a "marriage strengthener" to be a ministry but the Coalition itself is not a church ministry organization. Instead it is a non-profit organization funded by grants.

"The churches are the leader in providing this type of education currently," said Steward. "We're hoping to have more opportunities for people to receive this information through a variety of venues. The Family Wellness is related to us in that we want to build families and we think building couples is the key to that. If we can help couples and families simultaneously, we also do that."

Family Wellness program

Hunnel is also helping Steward to organize a Family Wellness workshop program through the Ceres Unified School District. Beginning in April and running through May, the program will be held Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Dr. Joe Hernandez, a Salida licensed clinical psychologist, and his wife Michelle, will conduct the Ceres Family Wellness workshops.

"We'll be giving family skills to help develop healthy families, healthy marriages," said Hunnel, a community representative of SCHMC.

Marriages can fail for a number of reasons, said Steward, but the chief reasons are a lack of communication and money problems.

"Many times it's due to crises that come into the marriage," he said. "Illness of either spouse or a child or something like that where they just don't have the coping skills to work through the situation."

Hunnel said studies suggest that cohabitation is also contributing to the shakiness of marriages.

His programs are intended to make people realize that marriage requires compromise and that every marriage has issues.

"We coach people to recognize danger signs in their relationship and then we reinforce positive practices," said Steward. "Rather than teaching them "don't do this, don't do this,' we say, "If you see this danger sign, here's a better way.' "

Since forming about two years ago, most of Steward's efforts has been in building partnerships and training up leaders. He said that a lot of things will be popping now that the foundation has been set.

"We're just now having this come into public view," said Steward.

The Coalition is also delving into a yard sign campaign as part of the "10,000 Sign Project." Signs printed with pro-marriage sayings are popping up all over the county.

The Coalition is also partnering with a church-based program called "Reconciling God's Way."

"They are responsible for mending quite a few marriages."

Steward said the American public still wholeheartedly supports marriage as an institution between a man and woman.

"Seventy-five percent of Californians think that if one person in a marriage wants a divorce and the other person does not the couple should be required to attend marriage education classes or couples counseling to try and work through their issues before a divorce is granted.

"People agree that divorce is harmful, that marriage is better."

Steward said the divorce has been slowly dropping "but the problem is people aren't getting married. That's one of our big jobs is to try to build up the perception that marriage is valuable and has a strong value both to our relationships but also to our communities because it costs a lot of money for people to be divorced. In Stanislaus County it costs $35,000 a couple in public impact that it has."

All the programs are posted on its website,