The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded the UCF Marriage and Family Research Institute a five-year, $9.6 million grant to research the effects of relationship education on low-income families.

“The study, funded under the name Project Harmony, aims to enhance relationships and empower careers,” said Sejal Barden, who is the lead investigator and a counselor education assistant professor.

Other UCF relationship programs in the past have had success.

Crystal Cedeno, 28, and her fiancé Miles Wiseman, 26, participated in a similar relationship education program a few years ago at the institute. They both had different upbringing experiences—Cedeno grew up in a single-parent household and Wiseman was raised by both of his parents.

Cedeno expects to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in international and global studies in May.

Wiseman graduated from UCF with his bachelor’s degree in nursing in Dec. 2014 and is an emergency-room nurse at Florida Hospital Altamonte and works part time at the UF Health Cancer Center in Orlando.

The couple will marry in October.

They were balancing school and taking care of their son Levi when they found out about the relationship education program. The program provided them with the tools for creating a stronger bond and to be better parents.

“Commitment and safety were very important to me, especially with having a family,” said Cedeno. “We also learned what were the most important things that we wanted to pass down to Levi and what kind of person we wanted him to be.”

“The program definitely improved our communication,” said Wiseman. “It taught us how to avoid communication traps like mind reading and projecting. I thought the program was invaluable.”

Project Harmony recruitment specialist Ada Diaz, 30, also participated in the previous federally-funded program and is giving back to other couples.

Her husband had a scheduling conflict, so she attended the sessions by herself. They were raising two children with a third on the way while Diaz was majoring in psychology at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.

She was fascinated with the research and psychology aspects of the program and thought it was a great opportunity that would benefit her in the long run.

The experience had a lasting effect on her family.

“I learned how to communicate and listen better,” Diaz said. “My kids are a lot more expressive and they’re talking about their feelings. Our family is a lot closer now.”

Barden said research has shown that low-income couples experience greater chronic stress. Counselor education and social work students at the institute are making a difference by giving couples enrolled in the Project Harmony program the essentials for developing healthy relationships.

“Individuals and couples from economically disadvantaged households encounter additional barriers beyond being in relationships and parenting,” said Barden. “Not only do they have economic hardships, they have less access to resources focused on building healthy relationships and finding ways to communicate daily stressors and resolve conflict.”

The stressors lead to a higher prevalence of relationship problems, domestic violence, substance abuse and poor parenting.

UCF has a long history serving the community in the areas of marriage and parenting. The institute launched with grant money in 2003 to generate research and clinical initiatives that ultimately have helped thousands of couples and individuals.

For example, volunteer families sign up and receive meals, bus passes, retail gift cards and childcare as incentives to alleviate participation barriers, with the goal of helping participants support healthier relationships. The workshops are also conducted in English and Spanish.

Project Harmony aims to engage more than 6,000 people in relationship- and career-related workshops at no cost, Barden said. The curriculum is focused on effective communication, conflict resolution and relationship commitment. A new component is career services, with participants receiving help by creating or revising resumes, and coaching on building skills and selling their strengths in a job interview.

Barden hopes Project Harmony makes a difference in the participants’ lives.

“The MFRI’s mission is to see you leave better than when you arrived,” she said. “This may be the only time our participants seek intervention, so it’s critically important that we build a relationship with each participant grounded in safety and trust, as we know this is imperative to facilitate a positive learning environment. Relationship skills are life skills. We’re all in relation to one another whether you’re partnered or single. Everyone needs to know how to be in a relationship.”