30 years of helping women help themselves

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An advocate for abused women is proud of her service to the community.

Jeannette Libby has seen the horror stories: Women beaten bloody, with broken arms and broken spirits. Women killed. Women who killed themselves to escape the pain.

As an advocate at the Abused Women’s Advocacy Project, Libby chased away men looking to drag their wives and girlfriends home. She held women when they cried and soothed them when they raged. She coaxed traumatized children into saying a few words, a few sentences, telling their stories.

For 30 years, Libby fought Western Maine’s tide of domestic violence. AWAP was her life.

“I was helping women to help themselves,” she said. “I was so happy to be doing the work I was doing.”

But at 73, with failing eyesight and other issues, the jovial great-grandmother decided it was time to retire. Earlier this month Libby left the Lewiston-Auburn area shelter for the last time.

She still cries when she thinks about it.

“It was very hard for me to get done,” she said.

Libby was abused herself.

She might have stayed with her abuser forever but for two tragedies: the deaths of her infant son and her best friend. Her best friend, also a domestic violence victim, killed herself. Her son’s death she doesn’t want to talk about.

“When my baby died everything in me died,” she said.

With her children in tow, Libby left her husband. In 1977, while working as a receptionist, she saw an AWAP job ad in the paper. The nonprofit needed someone to staff its domestic violence shelter in the evening.

Libby had no high school diploma and no formal training for such work.

She didn’t have to.

“I had the background,” she said.

A day after she interviewed, AWAP offered her the job. On Christmas Eve, she walked into AWAP’s shelter.

“I thought, ‘These are just people. They’re families. I can take care of families,’ ” she said. “What I didn’t realize was the problems.”

The first woman Libby met had no front teeth and a grotesquely twisted arm from severe abuse. Her seven children routinely acted out, threatening to jump off the balcony, trying to run away, smearing feces on the wall.

But Libby never considered leaving. Although there were hard times – one woman killed herself at the shelter, others were killed by boyfriends and husbands at home, the grown daughters of victims became victims themselves – there were victories as well. One silent little boy, enticed by Libby’s offer of a new toy, slowly learned how to speak at the shelter.

His first word, a pre-schooler’s take on “truck.”

“He said ‘fruck,’ ” Libby said. “I laughed so hard I had a belly ache.”

Recently, she ran into the boy, now all grown up and with a son of his own. He still remembered her. And he still had the toy truck she’d given him for that first word.

“There’s a lot of bennies working there,” Libby said.

Pay, however, wasn’t one of them. When she started, Libby made just $99 a week, and she often gave away chunks of that to families at the shelter.

“I never thought about the money,” she said. “I feel I’m so lucky. So lucky. Oh my god.”

In turn, AWAP felt lucky to have her.

“She was the glue for the 12 years I was there,” said Chris Fenno, former AWAP director. “It was her life.”

Leaving

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While other staff members left for less stressful, higher-paying jobs, Libby stuck around. She helped AWAP’s shelter move into its own house. She ran victim support groups and classes. She rallied donors and raised thousands of dollars to help the organization grow.

“The woman has the most incredible heart I have ever seen,” Fenno said. “Many people get jaded, and she never did.”

Libby never seriously considered retirement. Not until this year.

She made the decision suddenly and without a lot of fanfare. July 1 was her last day. She still gets teary thinking about it.

“I’m OK about leaving the job. I’m not OK about leaving the women,” she said.

Women call the shelter almost every day looking for her. Many thought of her as a grandmother.

“She listens and hears what you have to say,” said Claire Rousseau, an AWAP advocate who met Libby 12 years ago when she needed her own help from abuse. “She has a way of taking people under her wing.”

Libby wants to continue that in retirement, if in a different way. She hopes to write a book about her life, a book that can help other abused women.

“I like where I am today. I like me,” she said. “I want somebody else to feel that.”

What: Jeannette Libby’s retirement party

When: 4:30 to 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24

Where: 484 Main St., Lewiston.

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