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The Short Version: The goal of First Things First is to help create healthy relationships. The nonprofit works with many people who may not have developed those connections early in their lives. Through its premarital, marriage, and parenting courses, First Things First encourages participants to learn and build those skills. The organization offers online courses for young adults and established couples on how to improve all of their relationships.
When she was a senior in high school, Julie Baumgardner was completely surprised by her parents’ divorce. They had been married for 24 years but were separating because her father had been having an affair.
“I had no clue they were having issues. It hit me hard because I was a daddy’s girl. When my dad left, he left, and there was no relationship at all moving forward,” Julie said.
That experience from her youth led Julie, now the President and CEO of relationship resource nonprofit First Things First, to pursue a career in counseling. She wanted to help others who faced difficulties in their relationships. Over her decades-long career, she saw many individuals and couples who didn’t have the skills they needed to be successful in love and intimacy.
For many couples, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of love or compatibility issues that drove them apart. Instead, they had never developed the skills necessary to build and maintain a healthy relationship.
Julie said she wanted to teach these couples how to navigate through their issues, but many just wanted a quick fix. They didn’t want to put in the work; instead, she said they wanted Julie to magically make their problems disappear.
But Julie said she wanted to work with those individuals and couples in a more substantial way, and help prevent problems in the first place.
So, when an opportunity arose to work with First Things First, Julie jumped at it. The nonprofit aims to give people in all stages of life the essential skills they need to develop healthy relationships — so they don’t have to look for a quick fix later.
“First Things First wanted to focus on prevention, not just intervention. When I heard that, I knew I wanted to be part of that. Not having the right tools puts you at a disadvantage in trying to participate in a healthy relationship,” she said.
The plan for First Things First came to fruition in 1997, and now the organization offers a diverse array of tools to help people build relationships at all stages of their lives.
First Things First believes that learning relationship-building skills should start early. That’s why the organization offers a course to teach high school students how to communicate and connect with others.
This course, like many others the nonprofit offers, focuses on essential life skills, including emotional intelligence and mitigating conflict. While these skills can help forge romantic relationships, they’re also crucial in all types of interactions.
“These skills serve you at work, at home, in friendships, and in romantic relationships. It doesn’t matter where you are in your relationship journey; all of these tools help you move further down the road,” Julie said.
For instance, young people need to learn how important it is to stay true to themselves. High school students — and people of all ages, for that matter — may change themselves to be more appealing to the person they’re interested in.
First Things First courses emphasize the importance of authenticity. As Julie notes, if you have to pretend to be something you aren’t to be in a relationship with someone, that’s a red flag.
“What are your non-negotiables, like the things that you couldn’t do without in a relationship? What are your values, and what do you like to do in your free time?” she asked.
After students take the First Things First Healthy Relationships course, Relatable, in high school, Julie said that many come back to take others that the nonprofit offers.
“We’ve had people who we teach in high school come to us for premarital, marriage enrichment, and parenting courses,” Julie said.
When couples are ready to get married, First Things First is there for them, too. The organization offers the Preparing for Marriage course, which encourages them to dig deep and learn more about themselves and each other as they prepare to build a life together.
Some of the course topics include expectations for the first year of marriage, budgeting and preparing financially, and developing clear communication and conflict management skills.
Julie said that some couples who are seriously dating, but aren’t ready for engagement, can benefit from the experience as well. For instance, some couples who take the course only see each other on weekends, or have only been dating for a few months. In these cases, both partners might always be on their best behavior, never revealing who they are in life’s challenging moments.
That’s where this particular class experience can be very helpful.She also said that many couples in these premarital courses have never discussed important aspects of marriage, including in-laws, finances, and children.
“People say, ‘You gave us so much to think about’ and ‘We thought we’d covered everything, but we realized there were lots of things we hadn’t talked about,” Julie said.
Couples who need to check in and re-establish their relationships can also take a course to reaffirm their commitment called Maximize Your Marriage.
“A strong relationship isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being healthy,” Julie said.
In addition to its premarital and marriage courses, the nonprofit also offers date nights that encourage couples to connect. One of their most popular events is their at-home Date Night, which offers couples the opportunity to laugh, deepen their connection and communication, and just enjoy each other’s company. “Let’s Laugh & Love,” “Talk to Me Like Lovers Do,” and “Come A Little Closer, Baby!” are three of the at-home experiences offered.
Another well-received course is OH, Baby!, which is designed for parents-to-be. The online course helps couples prioritize one another while preparing to welcome a child. It also suggests ways to connect with other family members to ask for help.
First Things First has a wide range of experts on its staff, ensuring that its learning content reflects many different relationships and life stages.
“We’re diverse in age and experience. Three of us have our master’s degrees in counseling. The rest of us are passionate about teaching people to live their best lives,” Julie said.
First Things First works with people across the age spectrum, but the skills that participants learn are often very similar — and always relevant.
In fact, 97% of the group’s participants return for more content. That means that they may take another course later in life, or engage with the group’s regularly updated blog posts.
“If you’re breathing, the skills we are talking about are essential skills for life. You always need to know how to have a conversation with someone face to face, show emotional intelligence, understand how to manage and resolve conflicts, and solve problems,” Julie said.
As someone who saw the relationship she trusted most disintegrate during her childhood, Julie said she is now happy that she can teach others skills that keep them unified. Though First Things First has operated for nearly 25 years, its lessons about communicating well, sharing values, and picking up on subtle emotional cues are as valuable as ever.
“I am still excited about meeting people, teaching them skills, and watching them be successful in their relationships,” Julie said.