President and CEO of First Things First Julie Baumgardner told the Chattanooga Civitan Club, "It all boils down to the family, to what's happening at home." The organization, founded in 1997, was started as an effort to strengthen families in the area when it was discovered that the divorce rate in Chattanooga at the time was 50 percent higher than the national average.
Since that time, the rate of divorce filings has decreased 29 percent and the rate of divorce has decreased 26 percent.
The most dramatic change has been the rate of out of wedlock births, which has decreased 63 percent.
President Baumgardner emphasized that working to build strong families does not just help individuals; it helps the entire community. A person with an out-of-wedlock child and with no high school diploma has an 83 percent chance of being in poverty. Children with absent fathers are also exponentially more likely to have behavioral issues or even end up in jail.
First Things First works to change this through educating people, reaching over 14,000 people every year through their programs and classes. The classes range in topics from marriage, to parenting, to healthy dating relationships. She said, "What we try and do is give the people the information they need to make good decisions."
One of their programs, called Work Smart Live Well, teaches often overlooked job skills such as resume-writing, workplace attire, and relating to coworkers. These "soft skills" can make or break a job interview no matter what else someone is qualified to do. Within the last year, this program helped place 164 unemployed people into full or part-time jobs.
Another program focuses on fathers who have gone to jail. She said upon being released from jail, many men have child support payments to make. If they get behind on these payments, they lose their driver's license. They can also end up back in jail.
To break this cycle, First Things First worked with the court system to develop an alternative. In the program, fathers are taught how to improve their relationships with their children and what it means to be an involved father. Studies show that a high percentage of fathers to children born out of wedlock will walk out of the child's life within a few years. First Things First seeks to change this.
At this point in time, 93 men have graduated from this class and only three have returned to jail. Based on the average cost per year of keeping an inmate in jail, this has saved the taxpayers approximately $2,677,120. This program has also resulted in 55 job placements.
Yet another focus of First Things First is working with high school students, reaching over 4,000 students in the area each year. Ms. Baumgardner said the emphasis here is teaching what it means to be in a healthy relationship. She said, "Healthy relationships don't hurt you." She said many young people she had worked with had the mindset that "a bad relationship is better than no relationship."
In an effort to reach out to even more people, First Things First has also began offering free online classes on its website, firstthingsfirst.org.