AUBURN – During the past 12 years, Chris Fenno has seen some of the people she worked with beaten, battered and sometimes murdered. The director of the Abused Women’s Advocacy Project, Fenno has seen her share of tragedies.

“That’s offset somewhat by the successes,” Fenno said Friday. “It’s offset by the number of women who survived and who are doing very well.”

After steering AWAP from a small, obscure advocacy program into one of the most powerful and respected in the state, Fenno announced Friday she is leaving the group.

Fenno said she will leave in September, moving to the West Coast to be closer to aging family members. On Friday, after making her announcement, Fenno was reflective about her work with abused women.

“I’ve done it so long, I can’t imagine not doing it,” she said. “I believe the thing that makes me happiest is how much the program has reached out to the needs of the people. We’re really trying to do our work in a way that involves the whole community. The one thing we learned over the last 12 years is that we can’t do it alone.”

Since Fenno took over as director of AWAP in the late 1990s, the staff has grown from eight to 25 people. They help people in three counties. They have helped to create task forces that work out of hospitals, police departments and the district attorney’s office. More people are committed to helping abused women, and public awareness of the problem has increased dramatically.

“I would have never believed 12 years ago that Lewiston and Auburn police departments would have domestic violence divisions,” Fenno said. “Those kinds of things are realities these days. It’s a much different and much better world today.”

Fenno has overseen events to help raise money for abused women, including the popular corn maze in which people donate money in order to get lost in a massive Auburn field.

Many people who worked with Fenno credited her for tirelessly advancing the cause of abused women. She created programs, questioned laws and challenged police and court officials when she felt it was necessary.

Lois Galgay Reckitt worked with Fenno on many statewide domestic violence projects, from training for law enforcement officers to monitoring judicial sentencing. As director of Family Crisis Service, which offers services in Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, Reckitt said Fenno’s departure will be a tremendous loss.

“Chris has the expansive vision to see what needs to be done and the capacity to do it,” said Reckitt.

In particular, Fenno brought stability to a project that saw its staff triple and outreach expand considerably during her tenure.

“She really expanded the reach of the service to rural areas under her tutelage,” Reckitt said.

Before she came to work in Auburn, Fenno had earned a master’s degree in divinity. She had no plans to make a career of helping battered women.

Instead, Fenno began working with young people in the rough-and-tumble sections of Boston, helping kids in Roxbury and Dorchester. It was a leap from her earlier career plans.

“I started out thinking I would be a minister,” Fenno said. “But I realized, really during my first year, that I was drawn to community work and community organizing.”

Then she was asked to volunteer to help abused women. She did not want to do it. Finally, she gave in after a friend kept asking her about it.

“I went into it out of guilt, I’m ashamed to say,” Fenno said. “My vision was not working in the domestic violence field and not working with adults.”

But Fenno first began volunteering with the simple task of folding shirts. She heard the stories of women who had been beaten and overwhelmed by husbands and boyfriends. She was taken with the victims, their pain and their problems with the legal system.

“I really found my life’s work,” Fenno said. “The issue is about justice.”

She took over as director of AWAP and got to work immediately. But it was not all about changing policy and raising money: Fenno was often forced to enter the public arena to fight battles and sometimes suffer setbacks.

In 1999, Fenno took on the Lewiston Police Department after two AWAP volunteers complained of offensive treatment.

In 2000, she had to swiftly move the AWAP shelter after lead was found inside the building. The repairs cost thousands of dollars more than expected, but Fenno says the current building is far improved from the tiny space the agency had before.

Now, with plans to travel west in just three months, Fenno says she does not have any immediate plans. She does not have a job lined up or even any prospects.

But she has a feeling she knows what she wants to do. It’s the same work she’s been doing here for the past dozen years.

“I really think, whatever I end up doing, it will have to do with violence against women,” Fenno said. “This work has really fed my soul for many years.”

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