Society & Culture

UGA clinic provides counseling on relationships, finances, housing, nutrition and legal issues

Athens, Ga. – A new clinic at the University of Georgia, the first of its kind in the United States, will provide residents of Athens-Clarke County and surrounding areas counseling services on a variety of topics, including individual and relationship issues, finances, housing, nutrition and legal issues.

The clinic, known by the acronym ASPIRE, which stands for Acquiring Strategies for Personal Improvement and Relationship Enhancement, is the creation of faculty in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. It opened on a limited basis in January providing services on individual and relationship issues and financial issues, according to Lee Johnson, assistant professor of child and family development and director of the FACS marriage and family therapy program.

“We want to meet clients where they are,” Johnson said. “What we have already found is that our clients liked having both services available. We think we’ll have even more people who want to access these additional services.”

There are no requirements or limits on with whom a client meets. For example, someone interested in nutrition counseling isn’t required to also meet with a financial planning counselor. However, Johnson and his colleagues agree that it can be helpful to have access to experts in other fields.

“Our financial planning counselors have said they appreciated knowing they had a resource to turn to if a client seemed depressed or if a family’s financial issues seemed tied to relationship issues,” said Joseph Goetz, assistant professor of family financial planning and another founder of ASPIRE. “As we’ve talked to our colleagues in other departments, we’ve realized how interconnected so many aspects of people’s lives are.”

Megan Lee, assistant professor of furnishings and interiors, said the home environment plays a role in a wide variety of other issues.

“For a family that’s facing financial issues and also dealing with physical infirmities, we can help identify relatively inexpensive solutions that will make a house more accessible and safer,” she said. “For another family facing issues regarding how their children perform in school, we might look at the space the children have for homework and identify ways to make that space more appropriate.”

Rebecca Mullis, head of the FACS foods and nutrition department, sees the ASPIRE clinic as a place where students, under the direction of a registered dietitian, can work with individuals, families or small groups on a variety of nutrition issues.

“Right now, we know that the University Health Center has a high demand for classes,” she said. “ASPIRE could provide a place for both students and community members to discuss issues like weight control or vegetarian eating.”

Mullis emphasized that the counselors will focus on nutrition education, not clinical issues such as eating disorders. However, she said, a broad range of topics could be pursued, including issues that might also include counselors in the other areas.

“For example, food costs are one of the most elastic areas in anyone’s budget,” she said. “In these economic times, I could foresee our counselors working with those in financial planning to reduce food costs on things like eating out and, instead, teach families ways to provide nutritious meals on a budget.”

Likewise, Mullis said individuals who wanted to lose weight might find it helpful to include a relationship counselor in order to ensure family support for the effort.

The ASPIRE clinic is also teaming with the Public Interest Project of the UGA Law School to provide legal counseling to clients who cannot afford attorneys.

Alex Scherr, associate professor and director of civil clinics for the law school, said clients can meet with law school students for counseling on “any legal issues that arise from a lack of money,” including shelter, debt, identification, such as the need for licenses and birth certificates, public benefits, wage claims, health care and other issues. The clinic does not take cases to court but can help clients understand their legal rights.

Other faculty who are involved in ASPIRE include Maria Bermudez, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy, Jerry Gale, associate professor of marriage and family therapy, and Lance Palmer, assistant professor of family financial planning.

In addition to providing a community service, faculty involved with ASPIRE will also gather data to determine whether the model is an effective way of delivering a broad range of services to clients, according to Johnson. Those providing counseling services are either advanced undergraduate or graduate students who have received specific training and whose work is overseen by faculty members.

The cost for ASPIRE is on a sliding scale. For additional information or to arrange a free consultation call 706/542-4486 or email Those interested in legal counseling can also contact the Public Interest Project directly by calling 706/542-5213.