The OMIs first implementation priority was building capacity, but stimulating demand has remained a stated priority. As capacity has increased, the initiative has thus begun to focus on strategies for building demand and improving the publics awareness of the availability of services. The recruitment challenges experienced by some volunteer leaders make it clear that there is room for building demand. In the past few years, the OMI has worked on refining and expanding a method for reaching the general public in a way that educates people about the nature of marriage and relationship education, provides brief instruction in relationship skills, normalizes participation in such services, and promotes awareness of full-scale workshops available in the community.
Sweethearts Weekends. In 2004 the OMI began to coordinate, publicize, and sponsor Sweethearts Weekends one- or two-day weekend events that presented a condensed version of PREP® for the general community. This free event, held around Valentines Day in Oklahoma City or Tulsa, often attracted large numbers of participants. The OMI had a recruitment target of 1,000 individuals for the event; typically 1,000 would register, and about 500 to 600 would attend. The event usually included about seven to eight hours of PREP® instruction, condensed from the standard length of 12 hours.
The large-scale format of the Sweethearts Weekend events increased the visibility of the OMI and promoted awareness of the availability of marriage education services not only during Sweethearts Weekend but throughout the year. To meet the recruitment target, the OMI promoted the events through some targeted advertising involving newspaper, paid radio commercials, and distribution of informational material. The Sweethearts Weekend events are no longer in operation, having been replaced by an adaptation called All About Us.
All About Us. Building on the success of these events, the OMI adapted Sweethearts Weekend so that something similar could be offered more widely. To broaden its geographic reach beyond the states two major metropolitan areas, the OMI created All About Us events. Like the Sweethearts Weekend, All About Us (AAU) events focus on several hours of PREP® curriculum, but are held in communities of various sizes, including rural areas that might present limited opportunities for full-length PREP® workshops. Consequently, AAU is characterized and publicized as a statewide marriage education tour. By the end of 2007, 53 large-scale communitywide events were held in various parts of the state; more than 6,200 Oklahomans have so far attended either the Sweethearts Weekend or an All About Us event.
Organizing and conducting these events throughout the state requires substantial involvement by OMI staff, who are assigned specific regions of the state and are expected to identify communities or organizations interested in an AAU tour stop in their area. Staff then locate and recruit partnership organizations, sponsors, venues, and participants. Interested participants register with the OMI online or by telephone. The OMI also identifies workshop leaders, often selecting from among local workshop leaders considered to be especially active or effective. Because staff have found that participants sometimes do not consider other locals to be experts, the OMI may bring in high-quality leaders from other parts of the state or provide OMI staff to lead events.
Although the OMI provides promotional materials for the events, including flyers and media announcements, both the local organizations and OMI staff are involved in recruiting participants. To encourage attendance, door prizes (for example, a free wedding portrait package) and other incentives are offered. Those who attend can obtain a marriage license at the discounted price of five dollars, and this opportunity is widely advertised (for example, on marketing materials and recruitment at bridal shows and county courthouses). In interviews with past participants, many indicated that they had learned about the event through their employment at various agencies, including a military base, the juvenile court, and a social services agency. Some saw flyers or received emails about the event. Others came after hearing about the event from a relative who had attended a previous event. Usually more people register than attend, even counting the attendance of people who show up without having pre-registered. On average, OMI staff estimate that about 60 percent of those registered show up at the event. Staff report that they are developing a strategy to identify and address the reasons why people register but do not attend.
Motivation for attending community events. Focus groups with past event participants suggested that while couples with varying levels of relationship issues attend, many are looking to avoid or prevent future problems. For example, one couple attended because they were newly married and thought it would be a nice way to spend Valentines Day. Another indicated that they wanted to learn how to solve problems before they become problems, because many of the people they know are divorced. One woman said she was looking for more effective ways to communicate with her spouse, and another couple attended because they heard great reviews from a relative who indicated it had helped him. Post-event evaluations completed by participants indicate that about 20 percent of couples have attended the event because of existing problems in their relationship or marriage.
Participants reviews of the events. Past event participants in our focus group typically rated the experience highly and perceived some benefit to their relationships, though some were not sure they had absorbed all the information. Participants suggested that they liked learning the PREP® skills and were able to recall some of the basic concepts, including the importance of communicating and listening, validation, and filters. Some indicated that after attending, they made some changes in their relationships, such as spending more time with their spouse or putting more effort into the relationship.
The Sweethearts Weekend was later shortened from two days to one day because of a pattern of attrition on the second day, a format that was carried over into the All About Us event, and that change may have some effect on participants experience. Given the size of the event and the necessary compression of material, retention of skills and techniques may in fact be more difficult under the one-day format. The abbreviated experience does not permit reinforcement of the material through repeated exposure, and there is less time to process and practice the information. Consequently, the OMI encourages participation in a full-length workshop after the event.
Potential advantages of community events. Although they are not a substitute for more intensive workshops, OMI personnel see several advantages in these events. First, the events increase the initiatives visibility and are an effective way to reach large numbers of people in a short time. Second, they offer an alternative for individuals who, because of time or distance constraints, cannot attend a standard community workshop. Third, the sheer size of the event may help normalize the experience of receiving marriage education. Participants can see numerous people receiving the same services and know they are not alone in seeking to improve their relationships. Fourth, the events give the OMI the opportunity to encourage participants to attend 12-hour workshops to gain greater depth. OMI staff report, anecdotally, that workshops are often better attended following an All About Us event, although data are not available to evaluate this.
A further potential advantage of the communitywide events is their potential for demystifying marriage and relationship skills education, thereby opening the door to more complete versions of the program. Familiarity with marriage education is not yet commonplace, and some may confuse it with counseling or lecture. Some people may fear being embarrassed or feeling stigmatized for seeking help. Many are not even familiar with the concept that relationships might be improved by strengthening skills. These concerns and others may prevent some couples from enrolling in a standard workshop even if they are aware of their availability. Community events might help defuse some of these concerns because they allow couples to experience a taste of the program for themselves without much investment of time or effort.