Scarborough resident Mary Lou Smith said she was a domestic abuse survivor of 45 years. Refusing to be a victim, Smith is now a member of Finding Our Voices, a nonprofit bringing education and assistance to women dealing with domestic abuse. A banner featuring Smith was placed at Nonesuch Books in South Portland on March 13 and the organization distributed bookmarks to the store. Courtesy photo Patrisha McLean

SOUTH PORTLAND — A peer-to-peer organization breaking the silence on domestic abuse displayed about 20 banners in local businesses’ windows, shedding the light on what is often seen as an uncomfortable subject.

Finding Our Voices, a nonprofit organization founded in Camden that supports domestic abuse survivors and educates the public, doesn’t want the discussion of domestic violence to stay hidden in the dark, where no one learns about the issue, said Patrisha McLean, founder and president.

McLean, Mary Lou Smith, an organization member and Scarborough resident, and member Linda Leonard were in South Portland on March 13, hanging banners in windows.

The banners feature photographs of different women, all who have experienced domestic abuse; the national hotline number for domestic violence, 1-800-799-7233; and Finding Our Voices’ website information, findingourvoices.net, where people can navigate through all of the women featured on the banners and hear their stories.

This was the third time the organization members have gone to a community to ask business owners to put up the banners, McLean said.

By showing real women’s experiences in storefront windows, the banners symbolically shed light on the issue, McLean said. Each banner has a different person and their unique quote with the intention of it resonating with a variety of people.

“So, basically we’re up to 33 women now from all over Maine, 18 to 81,” she said. “The more banners we can get up in one area, the better because they’re all different, and people will start noticing them and they’ll see this happens to everyone, young, old, all kinds of backgrounds. We have a journalist, a teacher, a nurse, a prisoner, a prison guard, a pharmacist. On and on, it’s just every kind of woman imaginable, and this is just to say it happens to everybody.”

The women visited Nonesuch Books & More in South Portland, their first destination of the day, to pick up copies of the book “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men,” by Lundy Bancroft. Smith, a domestic abuse survivor of 43 years, inscribed the book, McLean said. Finding Our Voices then distributes the copies to people reaching out to the organization.

“So I order these from local bookstores, and our survivors write an inscription in them, and we give those to women who need to understand what they’re going through,” McLean said. “We ordered 12 books. Mary Lou wrote an inscription in each one.”

Smith’s banner, now hanging in the window of the bookstore, contains her quote, “It’s never too late to leave.”

“Because I left when I was 65,” she said.

Now 81 years old, Smith is working with McLean on various projects, including a survivors’ support chat and book club at the Maine Correctional Women’s Center in Windham.

“I want people’s love and compassion, not their pity and judgment,” Smith said. “When they give me love and compassion, I stand beside them. When they give me pity and judgment, they make me a victim, and I’ll never be a victim again. That’s engrained in my soul.”

McLean and Smith met in 2019, and even though there is an age difference of 20 years, they saw strong similarities in the way they were treated by their husbands, Smith said.

A domestic abuse survivor of 29 years, McLean had never realized how many women in her community of Camden-Rockport experienced the same situation until after she left her ex in 2016, she said.

When her ex-husband, Don McLean, most famous for the song “American Pie,” was arrested on domestic violence charges and made headlines, McLean said women began approaching her with their stories.

“I had lived there for 29 years, and it was women coming up to me and saying, ‘It has happened to me, too,’” she said. “And these were women, many of whom I have known for 30 years. They never knew about me, and I never knew about them.”

This made McLean realize that domestic abuse is an issue that needs to be discussed in the public, she said.

“There were people I had known all this time, and I never knew that this had ever happened to them,” McLean said. “And many of them, I was the first person they shared that with because now they knew I was in it and they confided to me that they also were. One of the women, my hairdresser, said, ‘I’ve always wanted to tell my story.’ That’s what sparked it. I’m like, you know what? I’m a photojournalist. Everyone needs to know what I now know. Now I knew that all around me, this was happening, and no one talked about it. No one knew, and people have to know.”

With the banners, Finding Our Voices hopes to move away from stereotypes like a “woman with a black eye” that may present a false image of domestic abuse and violence in people’s minds, McLean said.

Linda Leonard (left) and Patrisha McLean (right) at CIA Cafe in South Portland. The two women displayed banners with educational information about domestic abuse around South Portland on March 13. Catherine Bart photo

At first, the women were contacting municipalities and local chambers of commerce for permission to put up banners, but Leonard had the idea to start driving down to different communities and cold-calling on businesses, McLean said.

There has been a great deal of support from business owners, Leonard said. Men, too, have expressed interest and often share their own family’s or friends’ stories when putting up the banners.

Legion Square Market in South Portland immediately agreed to put up a banner when approached, said manager Mike Cardinal. The store is happy to support the organization and the work the members are doing.

“They showed us the banner right off the bat and told us everything going on, and we said we’d love to put it up,” Cardinal said. “We’d like to try to make window space for nonprofit organizations because we have so much of it. Especially right now during the pandemic it’s a very important topic to bring some voice to and shine some light on. Our first thought here was, ‘any little bit we can do to help.’ We’re happy to be a part of this.”

Located in the Knightville area, the storefront sees a fair amount of foot traffic, Cardinal said. This show of support could impact community members or other businesses.

“I hope to be a part of raising voices that deserve to be heard, and I hope us showing that we’re comfortable making space for that will help encourage other businesses that might be more hesitant to consider doing that as well,” Cardinal said. “On the other side we work very closely with our community, and we want people to know that we stand with them and we listen to what’s going on.”

With half of all homicides each year in the state caused by domestic violence, Finding Our Voices plans to continue spreading women’s stories throughout Maine, McLean said.

“The fact that these women can now stand proud and speak loud is a beautiful thing,” she said. “We’re getting these banners big because people can’t look away from these banners, and they’ve got to stop looking away from it. People have got to start looking it square in the eye. Until they do, the shame continues. The public doesn’t realize how big of a problem this is until they start seeing it with their own eyes.”

Besides displaying banners, McLean hosts a monthly radio show, which she said she is turning into a podcast, at WERU Community Radio 89.9 FM on the second Friday of every month.

Those interested in learning more about the women on the banners can visit findingourvoices.net to listen to their stories, McClean said.

The banners are up at store windows in the Mill Creek Plaza and around Ocean Street.

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