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‘Great Contraption Race’ on Lower Niagara River off Lewiston will help sex assault victims

LEWISTON – The themes of the homemade, floating contraptions preparing to drift down the Lower Niagara River Saturday promise to be original and wacky. The goal is to have fun, while bringing attention to – and raising money for – a poignant and important cause, the It Happened to Alexa Foundation.

This national foundation is based in Lewiston and provides financial, emotional and advocacy assistance to sexual assault victims and their families who prosecute attackers.

This is the second year for the foundation’s Great Contraption Race, scheduled to launch at 11 a.m. at the Lewiston Public Docks and wind up at the south dock at Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown. Check-in starts at 9 a.m.

Last year, Jeff Stevens, a Lewiston engineer, built a Hawaiian-themed contraption. This year, he’s been working on a huge catamaran-type vessel that may feature paddlewheels for his team of four, which includes his wife, son and a longtime friend. He even created a PowerPoint presentation this year to share with his friends as well as his company’s suppliers and customers, in an effort to raise funds for the foundation through the event.

“ ‘Contraption’ is my middle name,” said Stevens. “I’m a builder. I started on this three weeks ago, and I think about it all of the time. It’s the great mousetrap, isn’t it?

“This really is a team event and it would be ideal for a corporation to do,” he added. “It’s a fantastic cause and it’s a ton of fun. You can always do the plywood over inner tube, but there are a thousand things that float.”

Spectators are welcome to observe the colorful competitors as they wind their way slightly more than six miles down the river. In fact, a number of private River Road residences have agreed to open their yards and docks for viewing – look for the VIP viewing signs along the route, or take advantage of some of the public spots along the way.

The after-party, slated for noon to 5 p.m. at Fort Niagara, is open to all. Race participants receive free goodies as part of their entry package, and food and drink will be available for purchase. Live music will be provided by Clyde, as well as the Dave Thurman Trio. A petting zoo, face-painting and car show also will be featured.

“Last year, the inaugural event attracted students, grandparents, young families and everyone in between,” said Ellen Augello, the foundation’s executive director. “This is what we were striving for. The Alexa Foundation assists victims of sexual assault at any age, therefore, we want our events to spread the message to diverse age groups.”

In anticipation of the event, a VIP Sunset Cruise is planned for Thursday, with a “land lubber” reception from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Barton Hill Hotel in Lewiston, followed by a cruise on the Niagara Belle from 6:30 to 10 p.m. The cost is $150 per person (or $25 for the cruise only). It is sponsored by Niagara Sunset Cruises, Certo Brothers and the Barton Hill. Augello noted that the cruise portion is nearly sold out.

The foundation was started by Tom and Stacey Branchini to honor the courage of their daughter, Alexa, who survived rape by a stranger who broke into her college dorm room the second week of her freshman year. It is celebrating its 12th year of supporting hundreds of victims of sexual assault and their families, aiding people in 48 states, as well as U.S. citizens in 17 foreign countries. The average jail sentence in cases the foundation has supported is 12.5 years, dramatically better than the national average, it has found.

The foundation holds annual fundraisers in Boston, Palm Beach and Houston, with all proceeds going directly to victim support. Most proceeds from the Great Contraption Race will benefit the foundation’s Western New York educational outreach program. Now in its fourth year, this program teaches young adults personal safety and healthy relationships. Educational Director Sandra Lahrache, along with her certified therapy dog, Lilly, have made presentations to more than 6,000 students in the past year alone.

As this outreach program continues to grow, funding remains scarce, and the foundation can’t continue to provide this service for free, Augello noted. It received support through local fundraising – like the Great Contraption Race – and grants from the Grigg-Lewis Foundation and Precious Plate.

“Statistics prove that continued education to young adults regarding healthy relationships and the meaning of consent lowers the risk of becoming a victim of abuse, sexual assault or even becoming a perpetrator,” Lahrache said. “I know our outreach is making a difference, I see it every time I have a class evaluate their experience.”

As of last week, around two dozen teams had signed up to compete in the contraption race, Augello noted.

The race occurs on floating contraptions designed and built by each team. They need to be constructed from mostly recycled materials and must be tested prior to the race to make sure they float and may only be propelled by human power or a man-made sail. Prizes will be given for most innovative; most creative; fastest time finish; top individual fundraiser; people’s choice; and best overall.

Visit or call 754-9105 for entry forms or more information.