UGA program helping Georgia couples reach new heights
If you want to hear an old-fashioned love story but with a modern twist, meet Tom and Orva Voth.
Both divorced and in their 60s, they met on a Christian website two decades ago, “flirted” long distance for a while and married three years later.
Long distance in this case was northern Minnesota and southwest Georgia, a distance of roughly 1,500 miles. Orva attributes it all to “divine intervention.”
“The more we got to know each other, we felt like two nuts who fell off the same tree,” Orva said. “He was a farm boy from Minnesota and I was a farm girl. We had so much in common.”
Married and retired now, the Voths live a quiet life on five acres outside Albany, Ga., with their two Dexter calves, Lilly and Clyde.
Until recently, their life was one adventure after another, but gradually, trouble crept in, and it began innocently enough.
“Tension had built up in our lives,” related to an issue involving extended family, Tom said.
“The frosting on the cake was when Tom’s daughter came to visit us at Thanksgiving and said ‘Are you two getting a divorce?’ ” Orva said. “I said ‘Why?’ She said ‘The way you relate to each other is just tense, not like normal.’ I think for us that fortified it and we knew there was a problem.”
When an email from the Dougherty County UGA Cooperative Extension office arrived advertising a relationship education program called Elevate, the Voths signed up.
“We thought ‘Well, it sounds like an interesting program. Why not?’ ” Orva said.
Launched last spring, the Elevate program is part of a five-year, $6.2 million grant the University of Georgia received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2020.
Using the UGA Extension network and community partners across the state, the project delivers no-cost, evidence-based couples and relationship education programming virtually and in-person.
“Our goal in the Elevate program is to support couples in working together to manage stress,” said project director Ted Futris, a professor and UGA Extension human development specialist in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Couples have an opportunity in our program to spend quality time together, focus on each other and discover ways they can take their relationship to the next level.”
Outreach to active-duty military, veterans
The program is offered in-person in 13 counties, most of them located in or near military bases, providing active-duty couples and veterans greater access.
A veteran himself, Tom left the family farm in Minnesota at 17, graduated from college during the Vietnam War and joined the Marines. He medically retired as a major, then spent 20 years working for the Marines in Albany as a civilian.
Of the 447 couples who have enrolled in the program to date, 35 of them were either active duty or veterans. Both military and couples not connected to the military credit the program for strengthening their relationship, Futris said.
“Nearly 9 in 10 couples who complete the program report they are more satisfied with their relationship because of the program,” Futris said, “and 94 percent of our participants report they learned from the program strategies for increasing their likelihood of relationship success.”
The Voths are one of those satisfied participants. The couple said still they occasionally use the manuals from the program as a “marriage playbook” of sorts.
“One of the things that really hit home to us was we needed to put the relationship first,” Tom said. “That was what was happening to us: the relationships with family were getting mixed in there and we weren’t taking care of ourselves.”
“You sit there and shake your head and think ‘Yeah, that’s the way it should be,’ ” Orva said. “You just need to put it into practice.”
The 12-hour program is presented in eight modules, currently delivered by trained facilitators to couples in committed relationships, whether married or unmarried.
Couples can visit the Elevate website to apply.
“If we had not gone to this (training), our marriage wouldn’t have been as much fun as it has been,” Tom said. “It just illuminates so many things and helps you understand who’s the most important person in your life. For us, that’s Orva and Tom.”