Grant awarded to churches to start teen relationship program

Thursday, December 4, 2008 | 7:19 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA – A $50,000 grant will help some Columbia churches start a faith-based initiative to address the problem of teen relationship violence.

The grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health was awarded to a coalition of Columbia churches, community health professionals and MU, and will start the Teen Relationship Education and Empowerment (TREE) program.

The grant was one of 15 awarded by the foundation Wednesday to mid-Missouri nonprofit organizations.

Kim Ryan, the associate pastor at Broadway Christian Church, said the program aims to strengthen teen relationships by providing education on how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Broadway Christian Church initiated the application for the grant, in cooperation with MU's Center on Religion and the Professions.

"About three years ago, I heard Leigh Voltmer share the information that domestic violence is decreasing for all age groups except the 18 to 22 age group," Ryan said. Voltmer is the executive director of The Shelter, a Columbia shelter that provides services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Members of Broadway Christian saw a need to talk to youth about sexuality and faith, and Voltmer's insight raised ideas for a program.

Kendra Yoder, the project coordinator of TREE, said the program will provide training for congregation leaders at 10 Columbia churches beginning in February. The training will focus on basic tools about relationships and teen violence and how to empower youth by utilizing the resources of the church.

By looking at similar successful programs and researching relationship violence, the congregation leaders can then tailor a program based on their denomination and congregation. Some may choose a format of Sunday school classes, while others may choose a retreat, interactive theater or other innovative options.

"We hope each congregation will independently decide what is best for their church, " Ryan said.

The grant proposal outlines that the churches selected in January will mentor 10 additional churches in the creation of similar programs for their own congregations during the second year of the grant. The churches' programs will also be highlighted by the Rave Project, a faith initiative for abuse education.

Voltmer thinks there are multiple reasons to have a program such as TREE.

"The number one reason is (domestic violence) is happening to that age group at a greater rate," she said. "We have to find an opportunity to talk to students and youth about healthy relationships."

The Shelter, a primary part of the TREE program's education team, sees an increase in younger women each year. Voltmer said there are more younger women in assault programs, as well as an increase in calls from 16- to 22-year-olds on its hot line.

Voltmer is hopeful the program will help teens recognize what they can learn early in a relationship to prevent them from getting involved with future abusers. The program also is aimed at providing information on how to leave at-risk relationships.

The grant will fund a part-time project coordinator, resource specialist and material resources for participating churches.  

Yoder said 18 churches are already inquiring about the program. The grant proposal originally supported eight churches each year for the first two years. An increase in inquiries caused the number to jump to ten. The committee is looking for more funding to involve more churches. First-year participants are scheduled to be selected in January.

Yoder hopes TREE will also develop an ongoing dialogue about teen relationship violence within the network of local churches participating in the programs.

"Historically, churches have been very silent about these issues," Yoder said. "It's time for churches to break the silence and talk about these issues."

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