What people give to end domestic violence in Maine
585 volunteers in Maine, 30,737 hours per year
When Mary McQueen is speaking to a victim of domestic violence on the phone or in person at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance in Bangor, her compassion kicks in. She listens and takes in what the person is telling her. Sometimes the story reminds her of her own.
But those moments are not scary for her. They give her a sense of purpose and a sense of hope. Someone is reaching out, and she is the one who gets to be there when no one else might be.
Sometimes, all she has to do is listen and tell people they deserve to be loved and respected. Other times she might answer a specific question or help brainstorm ways for people to be safer in their abusive home if they don’t want to or can’t leave. Or she might determine the caller is in need of the organization's shelter.
If they come into the resource center, she might talk with them and then give them a bag of snacks, shampoo, or a notebook and backpack. She’ll throw in a special present for the children.
“I love those days where I feel someone comes in, and they’re scared and they don’t know what their options are, and by the end of talking with them they feel excited and hopeful,” McQueen said.
Every year, about half of all assault reports to Maine police are for domestic violence — a total of about 5,500. And every year, about half the homicides in Maine are related to domestic violence. About 85 percent of victimizations by intimate partners are committed by men against women, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.
Many of the people working with survivors of domestic abuse are not paid professionals, however. They are trained volunteers.
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In 2013, 585 trained advocacy volunteers donated a total of 30,737 hours of service in Maine, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. They answered hotline calls, led support groups, mentored children, offered legal assistance and provided organizational support.
In the Bangor region, the Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance relies on about 50 volunteers. If paid workers performed the same duties, it would cost the private nonprofit organization roughly $93,000 annually.
Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance formed in 2013 when Spruce Run, in Bangor, and Womancare, in Dover-Foxcroft, merged. Spruce Run was the first domestic violence resource agency in the state and the third in the country, incorporating in 1973. Womancare incorporated in 1979.
Domestic violence resource agencies in Maine — which provide 24-hour hotlines, emergency shelters, support and education groups, transitional housing, children’s services, youth programs, legal advocacy and community awareness building — would not exist in their current forms today without the time donated by volunteers.
They are always looking for more.
You don't need special skills other than the ability to listen, learn and a desire to help. The five volunteers at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance featured below — McQueen, Aaron Bennett, Catherine Kurr, Ann Schonberger and Crystal Burns — come from different backgrounds, but they share one thing: Their role is to care about victims. It's common for victims navigating the criminal justice system and Department of Health and Human Services to feel like a number. Many officials they encounter provide the facts and the paperwork. The work of the volunteer advocates, though, is to be supportive and to let victims know they're not alone.
Open the navigation bar at the top left if you want to skip to the volunteers' individual stories.
Don't forget to take our quiz to test your knowledge of domestic and sexual violence.
'I got up different than when I fell down'
Name: Mary McQueen
Time at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance: She has volunteered more than 200 hours in the last year and, over the last several months, has stepped up her involvement and begun working for the organization.
Mary McQueen didn’t plan to have a son nearly seven years ago. Her then-husband didn’t allow her to use birth control. But even though her pregnancy wasn’t planned, giving birth “unlocked some healthy sight inside of me,” she said.
She began to stand up to her husband in their Pennsylvania home. She never got attacked when she was holding her son, so she began to think if she kept holding him, he would keep her safe.
When her son was about 2 years old, though, her then-husband knocked her to the ground while she was holding her son.
“When I got up off the ground, holding him, I got up different than when I fell down,” she said.
She knew she needed to find help. After researching her legal rights, a pastor’s wife helped McQueen get to a safe place while her husband was on an hour-long lunch break.
As they drove away, she said she remembers feeling determination but a lot of fear. For six-and-a-half years, she had been told that she was worth little. She had been yelled at for no reason, pinned down, knocked down. Her husband went through her Rolodex and accused her of being with people listed in it, she said. Then he’d throw it at her. Later he’d tell her he didn’t want to lose her.
They moved about a dozen times in six years, making it hard to get to know people. When her husband accused her of dressing for other men’s attention, she wore men’s-style clothing and no makeup. In public, she stared at the ground, so her husband couldn’t accuse her of flirting.
“I did everything I could to deface myself, almost,” she said.
Over time, she said he began talking about killing himself and her.
“His favorite thing was talking about bashing in my skull,” she said.
She went to bed worried he’d kill her in the night. Sometimes, though, before her son was born, she’d counter that fear with the thought: If he kills me, what would be the difference?
For a long time, even after she left, the fear stayed with her. “It’s much easier to get out of the situation than to get the situation out of you,” she said.
When she came to Maine five years ago to stay with family, she brought with her a sticky note on which an advocate in Pennsylvania had written down a phone number. It was for what was then called Spruce Run, a domestic violence resource agency in Bangor, which provides advocacy, education and legal services, helps domestic violence survivors plan for their safety, and operates a shelter. She joined its education class, which taught the dynamics of abuse.
“They really promoted taking care of myself, which wasn’t something I was doing,” she said.
She lived for three months in the organization's shelter and then got transitional housing in Charleston. Workers and volunteers met with her regularly. They helped her with legal paperwork to file and later renew a protection order. They encouraged her to advance her education and told her about scholarships. She won two of them and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
All along, she said she knew she wanted to help other survivors of abuse. She just needed to get to a place in her life where she would be able to help.
She has reached that point now.
Sometimes she’ll talk with people when they visit Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance and their experiences remind her of her own.
“Those moments are not paralyzing or scary or sad for me. Those moments are more validating than anything. I feel a sense of ‘this is why I am doing this,’” she said.
She talks to other women in the way that helped her. Once, a woman came to the agency for support. Despite her horrific situation, she remained stoic throughout their conversation. Toward the end, McQueen said she would be there for her; the victim wouldn’t be alone any more. At that point, the woman began to cry.
“Words are so powerful. It’s one thing to listen. It’s another to say, ‘There’s a future for you,’” McQueen said.
Her own future looks bright, with a new husband and baby.
“It’s amazing how one life encouraging another life on their journey can help them discover hope and discover a future,” she said. “Not only do I just want to do that for other people, I will not be satisfied living this life — that I’ve been given a second chance at — without helping other people.”
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The Guilford man
'I just felt I should do something'
Name: Aaron Bennett
Time at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance: He has volunteered more than 300 hours, giving presentations at schools about healthy relationships and supporting victims during the court process and over the hotline.
Aaron Bennett of Guilford never witnessed violence in his home, but it touched his friends and community.
He grew up with Steven Lake, who shot and killed his wife, Amy, and two children, Coty and Monica, in 2011 in Dexter. Bennett and Lake graduated from high school the same year.
In 1986, as their class watched the space shuttle Challenger launch live on TV and then explode, Bennett remembers Lake laughing.
“He started laughing immediately as soon as it happened,” Bennett said. “Everyone else just sort of looked at him.”
After Lake killed his family and then himself, Bennett said he couldn’t help feeling guilty.
“Maybe if I’d done something,” he said. “I knew how he was. I knew what he was capable of. I think a lot of people did.”
Bennett was a boiler engineer at Hardwood Products Co. in Guilford for 11 years before deciding to change course. He earned an associate degree in social work at the University of Maine at Augusta and recently became an education technician for special education students at Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford. It allows him to spend more time with his family.
He also started a volunteer internship at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance in Dover-Foxcroft. There, he took a 40-hour training about the dynamics of domestic violence and how to listen to and talk with people in abusive relationships.
“I’ve been accepted a lot more than I thought I would be,” he said.
He’s prepared for when female callers don't want to talk with a man. Since he started in January 2014, one woman hasn’t wanted to talk with him.
It's important for men to be involved.
Sometimes, men chuckle when he tells them what he does as a volunteer, he said, but “personally, I don’t care what anybody thinks.” If anything is going to change, men will have to be a part of it.
“I’m happy, I have everything I need. I have a job I like. I have a wife who’s awesome,” he said. “I just felt I should do something.”
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'I want to have an impact on the culture'
Name: Catherine Kurr
Time with Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance: She has volunteered more than 900 hours and has worked at the organization for seven years. She teaches future volunteers, conducting the required 40-hour training on how to listen to and help those who have experienced domestic violence.
Catherine Kurr came to Spruce Run in Bangor as a volunteer. It was there that she later found her calling as a teacher.
She was a student at the University of Maine when she first decided to volunteer in 2006.
“I was a women’s studies major and a young feminist who wanted more of a connection to my community beyond the campus, so that’s how I reached out,” she said. She loved both volunteering and being a part of a larger movement to end violence against women.
Being female shouldn’t mean you feel less safe. In a room full of people, how many of the women are thinking about how they’ll get to their car in the dark parking lot?
“I want to change that for all women. Even if it’s not about a specific person, I want to have an impact on the culture. That’s what really drove me,” she said.
She worked her way up to become the shelter services coordinator, managing all aspects of the shelter for women fleeing abusive situations. She later shifted to training others, beginning with health care workers and how they interact with victims. She also began to train future volunteers for the organization.
Every volunteer must complete a 40-hour training about the dynamics of domestic violence and how to help victims plan for their safety. Kurr teaches them what to say and, importantly, what not to say when they’re on the phone with someone seeking help. A major part of the training is simply learning how to listen.
Volunteers may want to jump to how to fix the situation, but that’s not their role. They must first listen to what’s happening in the victim’s life, validate their feelings, and explore the avenues the callers are open to. Many people already may be telling them what they should and shouldn’t do; one value of the hotline is that callers know they won’t hear those words: “You should…”
Kurr said she loves being a teacher. It's motivating to see how students learn and grow. For instance, one night at the end of each training, volunteers role play for up to 3 ½ hours. They split up into small groups, and one person will act as the caller seeking assistance, while another will act as the hotline volunteer. Others in the group watch and offer feedback on how the "pretend" volunteer did.
Before the evening starts, trainees tend to be anxious and doubt their abilities. But by the end of the night, they’ve faced their fears and are on their way to mastering the work.
Don't forget to take our quiz to test your knowledge of domestic and sexual violence.
Of course there are hard days, too — when Kurr hears of a client who’s had to go to the hospital or is facing roadblocks in the court system, or when she hears uninformed community attitudes about victims. But the people surrounding her keep her going.
“I do still really enjoy being part of something bigger than me and playing a role in that, but when I called to sign up for the training it was very much just that. Now the people I’ve worked with and volunteers I’ve worked side by side with are what keep me going — because you don’t forget people’s stories and people’s lives, and that’s both people calling in and volunteers. You don’t forget that.”
'I want to see how it comes out'
Name: Ann Schonberger
Time at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance: She has been volunteering for more than 35 years. Rather than provide direct service, she has opted to work more behind the scenes. She was instrumental in fundraising for Spruce Run’s shelter, office building and endowment, and she serves on the steering, endowment, finance and development committees.
Over the last 35 years, Ann Schonberger has seen attitudes toward domestic violence change. What once was considered a private matter is now a major public health concern — thanks largely to the work of battered women and their allies.
As one of Spruce Run’s longest-serving volunteers and a former director of the University of Maine’s women’s studies program, she has made it a point to record the important history.
Schonberger and other faculty and graduate students at the university created the Feminist Oral History Project in 1992 to interview Spruce Run’s founders and document the organization’s creation and early history. They have published several shorter pieces, and Schonberger is currently working on a book.
“I think it’s important to preserve the memories of these social justice organizations that started in the 1960s and 1970s because a lot of people involved were not academics and were so involved with their activism that they didn’t keep records,” Schonberger said.
Spruce Run grew out of the efforts of women in the 1960s who experienced abuse. A woman named Kay Lucas owned a large home on Hammond Street in Bangor where many grassroots initiatives started — a land trust, a food co-op, and a tenants union. An abused women’s discussion group started there in 1972 and grew into what would be Spruce Run, which was incorporated in 1973.
“Because in telling our stories to one another, it kept coming up that we’d always dreamed of a place where we could go just for some respite and maybe be able to talk to people about some of the things we were feeling and maybe take the children. You know, just some place to escape to for awhile. And that was the form — that was the idea at first, was that it would be wonderful to have a place to go to,” Lucas said as part of Schonberger's Feminist Oral History Project.
Spruce Run’s first client came through Lou Chamberland, then a 19-year-old VISTA volunteer who was one of several activists living in Lucas’ house. Chamberland was doing intake at Pine Tree Legal Services in Bangor when the client approached them, brought there from the hospital by her neighbors.
“She had — I don’t know — both arms were broken; she had five or six broken ribs; her whole face was all cut up: black and blue like everywhere. And she just sat there and said, 'I have no place to go,’” Chamberland recalled for the history project.
A couple days later, the woman returned to her home with the man who had assaulted her.
“We realized how heavily invested we had become in her not going back to him. And we said, ‘This is wrong. We’re not here to play God.’ I think that that was a real change in the thinking. At that point we started thinking about not rescuing women. We still were obsessed with having a safe place, with having a shelter, but it was more like, ‘This is available. If you want it, this is available,'" Chamberland recalled.
To this day, the guiding principle of the Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance is to listen to victims, help them plan and respect whatever choice they make. In fact, this is now the philosophy of all the members of the statewide Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
The women still were thinking about that shelter, though, when Schonberger joined Spruce Run’s steering committee in the late 1970s.
Before fundraising for the shelter, the volunteers never had approached people with considerable amounts of money and asked for it. They had relied on grants, an annual fundraising letter and small fundraisers such as bake sales and yard sales.
Catherine Cutler, a prominent Bangor resident, led the capital campaign for the shelter, and Schonberger learned from her. “She knew everyone who had money,” Schonberger said. “She was very regal. Nobody said no to her.”
Schonberger applied what she learned from Cutler to two more major fundraising campaigns — one to purchase and renovate Spruce Run’s office building and another to increase its endowment. She had started her career as a math teacher, and her skills were needed.
“One of the things about Spruce Run is — you talk to clients about options, you don’t say what they should do. Although I definitely believe in the self-help philosophy, I know that I would be more likely to say … ‘Pack a bag, get organized and meet me at EMMC, and I’ll take you to the shelter.’ I wouldn’t be good at doing the self-empowering kind of response to people in trouble,” she said. “And there are other people who are good at that kind of thing but don’t have financial skills, and I have those. The organization also needs what I do have.”
Sometimes people ask her why she has stayed with this volunteer work for so long. Essentially, it comes down to curiosity. “I say there’s always something developing and changing, and I want to see how it comes out,” she said.
'I was able to contribute a little bit to that'
Name: Crystal Burns
Time with Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance: Since August 2013, she has volunteered more than 430 hours by taking calls on the hotline, helping in the office and facilitating walk-in appointments.
For many, volunteering is something to do in their “extra” time. Others make time.
In August 2013, Crystal Burns was going to college, taking a 40-hour training to become a Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance volunteer and caring for her 6-month-old son, Steven.
More than a year later, she has stuck with it. It’s a family effort. Sometimes she supports domestic violence survivors face-to-face in Bangor. Other times she’s on call from her home, providing support over the phone.
Usually she holes up in her bedroom, so she can talk with people calling the hotline and help them plan for their safety, she said. But her son — now 19 months — knows where she is and enjoys knocking on the door. Luckily, her husband, Greg, jumps in to help.
Once, she was changing her son’s diaper when the phone began to ring. Her husband brought her the phone and immediately took over diaper changing.
Burns came to the organization as part of her work study arrangement with the University of Maine, but she volunteers beyond the limits set by her school.
“The big reason why I wanted to start volunteering was the aspect of being there for someone,” she said. “The biggest thing that I do is, I’m a safe person for the caller to talk to. I don’t judge them.”
“I had friends or people I knew who either had experienced domestic violence, be it either verbally or emotionally, as well as some physical violence. Other than that, there was no profound event in my life … that even comes close to the calls that I take,” she said.
Some of the hardest calls involve children, especially when they are being abused or witnessing violence. But at the same time, she is glad people are reaching out.
“It’s kind of rewarding when you hear later they were able to leave their situation, and they’re doing well. Or they’re in our shelter, and it’s working out for them. They’re gradually getting back up on their feet,” she said. “I was able to contribute a little bit to that."
How to become a volunteer
How to volunteer
To get involved, go to this link and enter your email address. Someone from a resource center will be in touch to share information about volunteer opportunities.
Want to reach out yourself? If you are interested in volunteering at the Dover-Foxcroft resource center, call 564-8166 to learn when the next training will be.
If you are interested in volunteering at the Bangor resource center, call 945-5102. The next volunteer training there will take place in late January 2015. Sign up for a preliminary interview by January 15, 2015. The training is a 40-hour commitment held over a four- to six-week period. Sessions are held on evenings and weekends to accommodate volunteers’ schedules. Exact dates and times for the training will be announced.
If you can't make the trainings in Dover-Foxcroft or Bangor, call the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence at 430-8334 to ask about the next volunteer training near you.
There's always lots to do as a volunteer. Below are examples of how volunteers help and what it takes.
- Answering the hotline: You are dedicated to one-on-one crisis intervention, listening to and supporting those who need someone to talk to, and learning about the dynamics of domestic abuse. You have a good support system, are comfortable around people from all backgrounds and are passionate about helping your community. You are able to take a 40-hour training about the dynamics of domestic abuse.
- Providing legal advocacy: You have an interest in the legal system and want to help people navigate the courts. You are independent and confident and have a strong desire to work directly with survivors and victims of domestic violence. You are able to take a 40-hour training about the dynamics of domestic abuse.
- Facilitating support groups: You are passionate about directly helping others and look forward to face-to-face meetings. You are ready to devote time to volunteering for the long term and are good at thinking on your toes. You are able to take a 40-hour training about the dynamics of domestic abuse.
- Staffing awareness and prevention tables: You are able to take most or all of a 40-hour training and will feel comfortable answering questions about direct service when they arise. Mostly you are energetic, outgoing and happy to spark conversations with strangers. You like being at public events.
- Fundraising: You have a desire to give. You enjoy helping at events and have organizational skills. You’re probably a self-starter.
- Mentoring children in the residential program: You love children and enjoy thinking up creative and fun activities for them. You are watchful and sensitive to how children are affected by abuse in the home. You’re a good listener, and you are able to complete 20 hours of training geared toward children.
- Governance through steering committee: You’re not necessarily interested in direct service, though you could be! You like thinking about the big picture and want to shape the direction of the domestic violence resource center. You have important contacts and are good at fundraising.
- Office support: You are invested in ending domestic violence but might not be interested in directly serving victims. You are friendly and happy to be the first person people see when they walk in the door. You don’t mind office work, have good organizational skills and are adept at handling donations.
Writing: Erin Rhoda
Visuals: Natalie Feulner, Brian Feulner, Ashley Conti, Gabor Degre, Erin Rhoda
What motivates you to volunteer? We'd like to know! Click here to share your thoughts.
The Bangor Daily News would like to thank those who shared their personal experiences and work daily with victims of domestic and sexual assault.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.
This is a project of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. To learn more, email email@example.com.