Through her work with New Hope for Women, Ellie Hutchinson has helped countless victims of domestic violence stay safe, whether they ever find the courage to leave their abusive partner or not.

Hutchinson, who is in her seventh year serving the organization as a community educator, said there were a series of events that occurred in her own life that led her to this work, which can bring both great joy and profound sadness.

For more than 40 years, Hutchinson worked as a medical technologist in Knox County.

But then, Hutchinson said, the first sign that she may be changing careers came in the form of a crisis that impacted someone very close to her.

"What first got me interested in this work was my daughter. She was in an abusive relationship," recalled Hutchinson.

Looking back on that situation now, Hutchinson said she missed some telltale signs that something was wrong in her daughter's marriage, but at the time she did not have the information she would have needed to identify them.

"Now that I'm in it, I see all those things that I didn't recognize then," she said. "… I watched him exercise power and control over her with their child."

How it all began

Hutchinson said her daughter has since left that relationship, but she knew there were so many more victims out there who needed help but were afraid to reach out for it. She knew there were families out there, just like hers, where caring relatives didn't always recognize signs of abuse.

That's where New Hope for Women comes in. The organization, which serves Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, lends support to victims of domestic abuse in a variety of different ways. One victim may need help creating a plan for leaving her partner safely. Another may not be ready to leave the relationship. In that instance, New Hope will assist her with identifying safety issues in her living situation and formulate a plan aimed at shielding her and her children from additional violence or other abusive actions.

New Hope also provides education for community groups, schools and other local entities on how to recognize domestic abuse and how to help someone who may be a victim.

Back when Hutchinson was dealing with the abusive relationship that was impacting her family, she knew she wanted to do something to help. She just wasn't sure exactly what.

Then she spotted an advertisement seeking people to work for the New Hope crisis hotline and to take the required training class.

"I decided I was going to take it," said Hutchinson. "Within two to three weeks of taking the class, I knew this was something I wanted to be involved with."

Hutchinson worked the hotline for about 10 years, with a brief break in her service, and during that time she was also in the process of completing a four-year program in education for ministry.

Each time she and her classmates were expected to complete exercises indicating how they wish to use their skills, Hutchinson said others almost always recognized her passion. To those around her, Hutchinson's calling was to join the fight to end domestic abuse.

While staying on with the hotline, Hutchinson said she started volunteering in the office in Belfast on her days off. Hutchinson was content to serve in that capacity until one day, when she saw an advertisement from New Hope seeking a court advocate. She immediately applied for the job, as she had already completed the training for it.

But Hutchinson said New Hope Executive Director Kathleen Morgan had another idea, in that Morgan asked Hutchinson to apply for an education coordinator position that had just opened up in Belfast. After a little hesitation, Hutchinson applied for both jobs. For the community educator's position, Hutchinson was asked to give a brief presentation on some domestic violence related topic. She chose to address the impacts of domestic violence in the workplace, a topic that turned out to be the hot button issue in 2006.

After her interviews, Morgan gave Hutchinson a choice between both positions for which she applied, and offered a little encouragement.

"She said she thought I would really shine as a community educator," remembered Hutchinson.

She soon adapted to working in Belfast and Waldo County, an area Hutchinson said she knew little about prior to taking the job.

A good partnership

Seven years later, Hutchinson said she'd never change the events that led her to where she is today, She said she's met great people here, and is especially pleased with the positive working relationship she has with local law enforcement agencies, the district attorney's office and the victim witness advocates.

"It's a treat to work with other professionals who have the same goals," said Hutchinson. "They're so victim supportive."

Waldo County Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton said Hutchinson has been "a real partner" to his agency. He described Hutchinson as someone who is truly dedicated to her work and makes herself available as a resource, day or night.

"She really is able to focus on the victim, where we have to end up focusing on the bad guy because we have to make sure the paperwork's all done for court, and for arraignments," said Trafton. "Because of that the victim gets left behind, and Ellie [Hutchinson] fills that void for us."

Trafton said you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who cares about the victims more than Hutchinson does.

"When we talk about the victims, you can see the worry in her eyes," said Trafton.

Hutchinson said while she tries to keep her emotions in check, it can be hard not to take the victims home with her at night.

"You try so hard not to take your clients home with you, but there are always one or two that just stick in my mind," she said. "Those are the ones I wake up in the middle of the night and think about."

Changing the belief system

Some victims come from physically abusive relationships, while others carry the less visible scars of verbal or emotional abuse, which Hutchinson said can be just as damaging.

That is part of the belief system that New Hope is trying the change in the community, as many still believe abuse is limited to the physical kind.

"When you talk to victims they will tell you broken bones heal. Emotional abuse takes years, and sometimes lots of therapy, to recover from. It destroys your soul," said Hutchinson. "… We're never going to change anything if we can't change the belief system."

Hutchinson's work can be heart wrenching at times, as she's seen many a victim return to abusive situations. Some, she has never heard from again. She's worked with victims who are fearful of their partners, but refuse to leave.

"In that case we try our hardest to develop a safety plan," she said.

Hutchinson knows of one victim and her children who always sleep with cell phones under their pillows, with 911 keyed in just in case the need for help arises.

"I can't imagine what it's like to live with that kind of fear," said Hutchinson,

But then there are the days when she'll get a call from a victim who has made it. Maybe she just got her first job after finishing her training, or perhaps moved into her first apartment with her children.

"Those are the gifts of this job you hang onto," she said.

And Hutchinson said there has been a lot of positive change in the fight against domestic abuse. Local law enforcement, members of the Waldo County Court system and Hutchinson are in the process of creating a task force specifically designed around the needs of the victims. Recent legislation, said Hutchinson, now makes it a felony-level charge for those who are arrested for strangling another person.

For some of those victims New Hope could not save, the organization memorializes those who died at the hands of their abusers in an exhibit called 'An Empty Place at the Table.' The powerful display, which appears at local libraries throughout October as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, carries personal items and reminders of Kimberly Sue Palmer of Camden, Candace Butler, originally of Bristol, Lori Trahan Cantwell of Rockport, Brenda Gray-Knost of Swanville and Ava Gushee of Rockland. A sixth place at the table honors the unnamed victim to symbolize the many who suffer in silence.

The memorial aims to demonstrate how each victim's loss represents not only a loss to their family and friends, but a loss to their communities.

Hutchinson said the memorial will be on display at the Belfast Free Library Monday, Oct. 28, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.