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New focus on rape victims; Lewiston-based foundation to help families with expenses for travel to sexual-assault trials gets a boost from national magazine

The "It Happened to Alexa Foundation," headquartered here, has been gaining stronger national recognition each year since its inception and is currently featured in the February issue of Reader's Digest.

The foundation helps support rape victims through the trauma of the criminal trial, assisting their families with travel expenses during the court process. It was established with the hope that more victims will pursue the prosecution of their attackers, resulting in more perpetrators being placed behind bars.

"Hometown Heroes From All Over" is the title of the Reader's Digest article. The foundation is the only organization of its kind in the country, according to Stacey Branchini, who, along with her husband, Tom, founded it in 2003.

The Lewiston couple's daughter, Alexa, was raped during her first several days as a freshman at Boston University in September 1999. Alexa reported the attack immediately to police, and the rapist was arrested and ultimately -- after 18 grueling months for Alexa and her family -- convicted and sentenced to 40 to 45 years in prison without parole.

The Branchinis were able to support Alexa through the difficult months leading up to the conviction because they had the means to travel to Boston many times, but they wanted to find a way to ease the financial burden on other families who find themselves facing similar challenges. They also wanted to offer support and direction to rape victims and their families to pursue prosecution.

Stacey Branchini likened the court process to "going through a maze. People need help. They need someone to say, 'I've been there. I've done that.' This is still your case, and you have the right to be informed and have input.

"When something like this happens to you, you feel like you're the only one in the world that this has ever happened to, and you're not, unfortunately," Branchini said. "This can be a comfort."

In its first year, the foundation disbursed $7,400. Six years later, it distributed more than $100,000 to help 174 rape victims and their families travel to court.

According to the foundation's executive director, Ellen Augello, "Last year, we helped 267 victims and their family members."

Branchini said the foundation has helped people from "just about every state in the union."

Augello said the Branchinis' cause was highlighted in People magazine last year and has been featured on the "Today" show and the Montel Williams and Bill O'Reilly programs.

O'Reilly, a graduate of Boston University, was so impressed with the cause that he has supported fundraisers in Palm Beach, Fla., in the last two years for the Branchinis' foundation. It was shortly after last year's event that Reader's Digest contacted the foundation about publishing its article, Augello said.

O'Reilly will again serve as keynote speaker for the "Justice Is Served" dinner March 25 at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, with Donald and Melania Trump serving as honorary chairman and chairwoman.

Last year's Palm Beach event raised $150,000. "As fast as the money comes in, it goes back out," Augello said.

After the current issue of Reader's Digest hit the newsstands, Augello said, "we immediately got four calls -- two from victims seeking help and two from victims' advocates seeking help for their clients. We suspect there will be many more calls."

Branchini said her daughter is currently pursuing her doctorate in criminal justice at Indiana University. She is dedicated to helping rape survivors realize they are not alone.

For information on the foundation and its fundraising, visit www.ithappenedtoalexa.org or call 754-9105.

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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