AUGUSTA — The Family Violence Project carefully tracks the number of victims it serves, but just as important is something that can’t be counted: abuse averted by education and prevention efforts.

The Family Violence Project is this year’s winner of one of Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s community service awards, and community is key to what the organization does. After all, the organization said, it will take wholesale changes to institutions and public attitudes to prevent domestic violence and improve responses to it.

“It takes a community to prevent domestic violence,” executive director Deborah Shepherd said. “This chamber award is a great forum to focus on that. You don’t have to be an advocate. You don’t have to work at Family Violence Project to help end domestic violence.”

Shepherd said that in addition to giving to or volunteering with the Family Violence Project, lay people can familiarize themselves with what Family Violence Project does, learn to recognize signs of abuse and find tips and resources on the organization’s website to help someone who may be experiencing abuse.

The Family Violence Project was founded in 1978 in Augusta. A group of women set up a hotline that they answered from home, and shortly after that they also established a shelter.

Now the organization has offices in Augusta, Waterville and Skowhegan to provide face-to-face assistance and runs two emergency shelters, one in Kennebec County and one in Somerset County. The 24-hour helpline is answered by staff during business hours and volunteers at other times.

With the help of 25 staff members and 50 volunteers, during the fiscal year ending in September, the Family Violence Project handled 4,382 calls to the helpline and 2,821 visits to their offices. They assisted about 2,000 clients, Shepherd said.

The Family Violence Project also runs several programs focused on prevention.

They offer several awareness and education workshops for companies and organizations, and three educators give presentations at area preschools and kindergaten-through-grade 12 schools. They talk with the youngest children about diversity, sharing and dealing with conflicts peacefully; while topics for adolescents include self-esteem and healthy dating relationships.

The Menswork program aims to prevent further violence by men who have been abusive. Many men attend the 48-week course in lieu of jail time, Shepherd said.

Kennebec Valley Chamber President and CEO Peter Thompson said that while the Family Violence Project has done valuable work for years, it’s good timing to give them an award now because of their 35th anniversary this year and larger conversations happening about domestic violence.

“It’s a reminder for all of us that what they do is so important and helps reduce what can be very traumatic events for individuals and communities,” Thompson said.

High-profile incidents of domestic violence and the advocacy of Gov. Paul LePage have brought new attention to the problem.

LePage has talked about being abused by his father — which led him to run away from home at age 11 — and championed policy reforms. He addressed domestic violence in his weekly radio address on Dec. 14.

“It’s very helpful to have a governor or someone in that high position who shines a light on domestic violence,” Shepherd said. “His advocacy is very important, especially in getting other men involved.”

About half of the homicides in Maine each year are related to domestic violence.

Shepherd, who has led the Family Violence Project for seven years, said she is proud of a new program at the Somerset County shelter designed to help women with substance abuse, which a large minority of women coming into the shelter say is a problem for them.

The program, which is funded by a federal grant and could be used as a model, provides treatment for the women and helps them stay with or regain custody of their children.

Shepherd is also encouraged by progress in public attitudes and attention to domestic violence.

“There’s a real heightened awareness over the past few years that everyone has a part to play,” she said. “That’s what gives us hope — and victims who have been able to transition to a life free of abuse. That’s what keeps us doing this work.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]