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Illinois Strong Couples program earns Extension Excellence Award

Extension employees

URBANA, Ill. – Unmitigated, chronic relationship distress can significantly impair the health and well-being of individuals, their families, and the broader community. A University of Illinois Extension program was recently honored for its innovative approach to offer education and coaching for couples.

Extension recognized the program’s groundbreaking approach to relationship mending by awarding the 9-member team with the Extension Team Excellence Award during a ceremony held in November in Urbana. The award recognizes professionals who develop, implement, and evaluate a program that addresses a priority issue.

Team members include Extension educators Tessa Hobbs-Curley, Robin Ridgley, Cheri Burcham, Michele Crawford, April Littig, Judy Schmidt, Karla Belzer and Melissa Wilson; and Extension specialist Allen Barton.

“About one-third of marriages may be distressed, and given current demographic patterns in Illinois, this equates to more than one million Illinois residents at risk of experiencing relationship distress” says Belzer. “As life stressors take their toll on relationships, individuals, families, and communities are at risk for long-term deficits in health and well-being.”

The Illinois Strong Couples program is the first of its kind in Illinois, Belzer says. More than 300 individuals throughout the state have enrolled in the program.

“Despite the importance of healthy couple relationships for individuals and communities, very few, if any, statewide initiatives have occurred to help distressed couples in Illinois,” Belzer says. “Relationship distress is more pronounced among lower-income and minority populations, so Illinois Strong Couples is designed to reach a geographically, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse audience.”

Couples learn skills or strategies in six online sessions. In addition, all couples participating in the program receive five video calls with an Extension program coach who provides encouragement as they guide couples through the structured exercises.

“Data from couples that completed the program reported they had improved relationship outcomes, such as more confidence in their relationship and more sense of working together as a team,” says Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean and Extension family and consumer science program leader. “Personally, participants reported decreases in feeling angry, being distressed, and feeling stressed.”

One may learn more at the Strong Couples website at The Strong Couples program has now extended to several other states.

Photo: Nine Illinois Extension professionals were recognized for their development of the Illinois Strong Couples program. Extension Director Shelly Nickols-Richardson, far right, presented the award to, left to right, Extension specialist Allen Barton; and educators Karla Belzer, Tessa Hobbs-Curley, Robin Ridgley, Cheri Burcham, April Littig, Judy Schmidt, and Melissa Wilson. Michele Crawford was not present for the photo.


ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.

WRITER: Judy Mae Bingman, Extension Communications Advisor and Web Content Strategist
SOURCE: Elisha Hughes, Professional and Training Development Associate