By Erin Wooddell
There are many sayings about opportunities falling into your lap when you least expect them. Julie Baumgardner experienced that firsthand when she happened upon the opportunity to tackle a marketing director role at Valley Hospital. After the hospital endured several unsuccessful attempts at hiring for the position, they knew they needed someone who understood the value of mental health services for those in need. As a social worker for the adolescent program at Valley, and a proponent for mental health initiatives, Julie saw this opening as a way to impact change and knew she had to take a chance. The only hitch? She had no marketing experience.
“I made my case and I explained that it couldn’t hurt for me to give it a try. They promised me a 90-day trial period, and I left the job several years later,” Julie says.
In that position—one she described as “baptism by fire”—Julie was able to experience a different side of the mental health world and directly see how the public’s perception of seeking help needed some real work.
It’s only natural that her next big, unexpected career move came in the form of First Things First. She felt inspired and passionate about the organization’s mission to help families navigate trouble spots in life.
“They sold me on the fact that they were prevention-oriented, following the three goals of reducing the number of divorce filings, reducing the number of out of wedlock pregnancies, and increasing father involvement in Hamilton County,” Julie explains.
Putting Family First
Growing up, Julie personally experienced the pain of an absent father and saw through her work that if people had the tools to do relationships well, marriages and families had a greater chance of thriving. She discovered it’s significantly less painful to catch families early when they are facing challenges instead of waiting years to try and mend situations.
This focus on prevention has a different impact than counseling. Julie explains that counselors and therapists often see so many decent marriages fall apart because couples wait so long to seek help. With First Things First, couples can seek educational and informational learning opportunities to enhance their relationships before they reach that point when they believe it is too late.
“Only 30% of divorce is due to abuse, addiction, and affairs. The other 70% stems from the ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’ disconnect. [First Things First] has an 82% success rate with helping couples get back on track,” she says.
In the skills-based sessions, participants are in a safe space where they can take in information and learn skills to enhance their relationships. Classes encompass a wide-range of topics like improving communication, practicing healthy conflict management and resolution, setting boundaries with in-laws, and even how present fathers make a difference in families.
[First Things First] has an 82% success rate with helping couples get back on track.
“People don’t think about how much their lives are impacted by their parents. A lot of people’s expectations about relationships are ingrained at a very early age,” Julie says. “This often comes to light in the midst of marriage and parenting. Through the years, we have learned that people don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to relationships. They may not even know that something they are doing for their marriage is actually sabotaging their relationship. We help open their eyes to what is happening and how they can change the dance to enhance the relationships they care about most.”
Since January of this year, First Things First has held 96 classes and events, taught 9,095 people relationship skills face-to-face, and received 169,880 new users online.
“Studies show people wait for seven years before they seek help. At that point, the resentment and bitterness is harder to work through. So when individuals say to me, ‘But my marriage isn’t in trouble,’ I always respond with, ‘Wouldn’t you like it to stay that way?’”
Growth of a Nonprofit
If you would have asked young Julie if her career goal was to be a CEO of a nonprofit, she would have said that was never even on her radar. While she always knew she wanted to work with adolescents and families, she actually wanted to major in music therapy, but soon realized there were very few certified music therapy programs to attend in the early 80s. Part of those early dreams came true, and she spent the formative years of her career in social work for adolescents, helping them with the troubles and issues they face as they grow. Now, through First Things First, she’s getting in on the ground floor teaching skills to all ages in an effort to prevent relationship meltdowns.
“I feel their pain, I see people in pain. It’s a passion of mine to help. If I can prevent the pain of abandonment, divorce, and unhappy relationships for other people, it’s worth it,” she says, explaining that prevention is less costly and less painful than remediation.
First Things First has seen great results for their efforts. Since 1997, their work has contributed to a dramatic decrease of out of wedlock teen pregnancy in the area and divorce filings are currently down by 39%.
Building healthy families, she said, benefits everyone, and for the past 20 years, Julie has worked hard through First Things First to do just that.
Hamilton County divorce filings are currently down by 39%.
But her job isn’t simply caring and creating fantastic programs for the community. In order to support those efforts, there has to be an influx of money, making fundraising a large part of her role as president and CEO. In the beginning, asking for money was far outside of her comfort zone. When she came on board with First Things First, she knew they had been funded by a seed grant. It did not occur to her in that moment that fundraising would be a big part of her job. During the kick-off press conference, she was asked how she planned to raise additional funds. Realizing she didn’t have a plan in place, she dodged the question.
“It was our launch press conference and my reply to more funding was, ‘It’s hectic today, let me get back to you.’ After that I kicked my fundraising efforts into gear. We’ve raised $26 million since then,” she says.
These days, Julie is well-versed in writing grants and asking for money for a cause. The First Things First initiative of working to keep families together is a big selling point, for happy families and low divorce rates impact the economic development of Chattanooga, local education efforts, and the vitality of the way we live.
Classes at First Things First are not free, but affordable. When they were free, Julie noticed a decline in attendance because there was no accountability to attendees. The organization never turns anyone away, however, and if cost is an issue, Julie recommends people contact First Things First to work something out.
First Things First’s large class offerings include travels to local high schools to discuss healthy relationship and dating practices. Topics range from respect and love doesn’t hurt, to what are the qualities of a healthy relationship and setting boundaries. They also hold a Success Ready class each year where an entire day is spent teaching teens how to prepare for a new job—communication skills, dealing with conflict, how to write a resume, getting prepared for an interview, how to dress, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and more. The next day, employers are brought in and the students can apply for jobs.
While the original staff of one full-time employee and two part-time employees has grown to a full-time staff of 10 and three part-time workers, First Things First can always use volunteers, Julie says. Programs like Movies in the Park, the annual summertime series held in Coolidge Park, is always in need of volunteers, as is the Success Ready program. Even their annual Date Night event, where more than 3,000 people show, needs volunteers.
With the impact this organization has had on the local community and the continued growth of its programs and services, it’s no wonder that Julie is being honored this year as the Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year. In the 30-32 years of the program, only five women have been awarded. Julie is the fifth. As a big proponent of female leadership, setting goals, and following through, Julie is honored by the award and excited to show other women how career opportunities outside their comfort zone can help them discover passion for a cause and promote success.
“It’s unique to be able to think up big-picture ideas and then uncover ways to bring them to life. I get to do that at First Things First and I hope I’ve set an example to other women what a little dreaming and hard work can achieve.”
Want to learn more about Julie Baumgardner? Check out her Spotlight Q&A here.