Nonprofit offers counsel to strengthen marriages

Publisher: The Bradenton Herald
By: Roberta C. Nelson
First published: August 10, 2005

Jim and Bethany Springer sat knee to knee, looked into each others eyes, and "really talked" in May.

The Waterlefe couple participated in a Marriage Enrichment Weekend sponsored by Marriage Savers of the Sun Coast, a nonprofit group formed six months ago and affiliated with the national group Marriage Savers in Potomac, Md. Another weekend retreat is scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Tabernacle Family Life Center in Sarasota.

"We have been married 13 years," Jim Springer said. "We have a very strong marriage, but we found that this was very good. It helps you understand how the other person is thinking."

It is a second marriage for both Jim Springer, 56, and his wife, who is 51.

"We thought the training was wonderful," he said. "We are going again this weekend."

The Springers are also hoping to share their experience by being mentors with Marriage Savers.

Founded in 1996, Marriage Savers seeks to strengthen communities through local religious congregations pledged to foster strong marriages. The group's goal is to "prepare for lifelong marriages, strengthen existing marriages and restore troubled marriages."

Marriage Savers of the Sun Coast wants to make the Sarasota-Manatee area the 199th community to adopt a Community Marriage Policy, signed by more than 100 local religious congregations Nov. 4. The group says that congregations in 194 cities in 42 states and three countries have adopted such a policy.

Member congregations pledge to require a premarital "inventory" for couples desiring to marry so they can talk through issues, offer an annual retreat for married couples, train couples to act as mentors, help separated couples with the course "Reconciling God's Way," and create stepfamily support groups, according to a statement from Marriage Savers.

Jonathan Bruce, a board member of Marriage Savers of the Sun Coast and a former Manatee County commissioner, said he believes strong families are a powerful antidote to the societal ills he dealt with as a public official.

"When we think about the issues - teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, even homelessness and day care - they all required funding from the county," Bruce said. "When looking at those issues, I found myself thinking or saying, 'We're dealing with symptoms here, the breakdown of the traditional family.' We need to get back to traditional families, and anything that can be done to help provide that foundation for families to stay together is a good thing."

Working with troubled teens brought Jim and Marlene Campana to the same conclusion. The Campanas, married 26 years, are co-founders and co-directors of Marriage Savers of the Sun Coast.

"We minister every week to teens from 12 years to 18 in the short-term offenders program, and we saw the majority of these kids from broken families," Jim Campana said. "We see single-parent families having a hard time with children, because they don't have time. They have to work. We saw devastation going on, so we wanted to do something about it."

The weekend retreat will be led by Jeff Williams and his wife Jill Williams. Jeff Williams is the chief operating officer of the national Marriage Savers. Williams said he hopes Sarasota and Manatee counties will follow the example of Clark County, Ohio, and other municipalities that have used public funding for Marriage Savers, and other faith-based and community-based agencies that help families.

"Government effectively has said it cannot accomplish what faith-based agencies and community-based agencies can," Williams said.

Bruce said that Marriage Savers of the Sun Coast will pursue government grant opportunities "in time."

"The program has to be established and running before that can be a realistic thought," Bruce said. "Right now we are running on a shoestring and donations. But once there is a proven track record and general acceptance that this is a good cause and a good goal, that might be something down the road."