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Alexa Foundation’s teal thumbnails offer support for sexual assault victims

LEWISTON – Sandra Lahrache is painting the town teal, one thumbnail at a time.

The acting executive director of the It Happened to Alexa Foundation in Lewiston is calling her attention-grabbing idea “Thumbs Up for Sexual Assault Awareness Month” and is happy to visit any local businesses or organizations willing to participate.

On Tuesday morning, Lahrache was at the Orange Cat Café on Center Street, raising awareness, painting nails and collecting donations. The previous evening, she visited – and painted thumbnails – of supportive local officials at a Lewiston Village Board meeting.

“I have worked with victims from ages 2 to 83,” she told the attentive group. “We are painting nails teal to let victims know they are not alone.”

The It Happened to Alexa Foundation was founded in 2003 by Tom and Stacey Branchini. Their daughter, Alexa, had been raped in her first week as a freshman at Boston University in September 1999, and bravely identified her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 to 45 years in prison without parole.

The Branchini family spent 27 days in Boston for the trial, which spurred the creation of the foundation, to assist rape victims and their families by easing the financial burden they face while traveling to attend criminal trials. It also provides crucial emotional and physical support.

The nonprofit foundation has helped hundreds of U.S. citizens – no matter where these assault victims are in the world – in their pursuit of criminal convictions.

Warm and engaging, Lahrache has served as the foundation’s victim support/educational outreach director for the past four years. She became the acting executive director last month.

She recently took some time to talk about herself and her commitment to this cause.

Are you a Niagara County native?

Yes, I’m from Lockport. I met my husband, Ahmed Lahrache, who is from Morocco, while I was living and working in Charlotte, N.C., and we married and moved back to this area in 1990. We have a daughter, who is 21, and a son, 17.

How did you become involved with this organization?

I was looking to do something different, as far as giving back, and Niagara County Community College was offering a program in becoming a victim advocate. That’s where my heart was – I wanted to help people.

I approached the YWCA to see if they had any opportunities and they had rape crisis training beginning right away. I thought I’d give it a try and when I got my first call, I knew right away I wanted to help.

Around that time, the It Happened to Alexa Foundation was looking to expand and, because I was certified as a victim advocate, I was hired part time to start their education program.

Tell us what this line of work means to you.

It’s an opportunity to feel so fulfilled, knowing at the end of the day that you can make a difference in someone’s life.

Tell us about the education aspect of this nonprofit organization.

We started some new programs, whereby I go into schools in Niagara, Orleans and Erie counties and talk to eighth-graders about healthy versus unhealthy relationships, and talk to 10th-grade health classes about consent. A lot of these students have seen me come into their schools and talk to them when they’re in eighth grade and then come back and talk to them again when they’re in 10th grade and I’m a familiar face and familiar voice with a familiar message. Studies show that this makes a tremendous difference in how kids respect each other.

There’s a new program, called the “Red Zone” for high school seniors. More rapes happen during the first six weeks of college than at any other time in a student’s life. It’s the new freedom, ignorance, alcohol abuse, not accepting that “no” means “no.” There’s still a lot of confusion about what consent means – and there are horrible people out there.

I’m also involved in “Take Back the Night” programs at Niagara University and NCCC.

And, this month, I am starting a new program where I’ll spend several days at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, talking to students from third grade through age 20. I will talk to every student about healthy relationships. On the third-grade level, I’ll talk about how friendships can be confusing, and then make a gentle introduction into boundaries. Ninety percent of children with disabilities are victims of abuse – whether it’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse. It breaks my heart.

And, we’re developing a program for developmentally disabled students and adults, too, where we’ll be training the staff, as well, to recognize abuse.

You are now acting executive director – are you still focusing on the education aspect as well?

Yes, at this time, I’m still working in educational outreach with victims and I also enjoy working on our fundraising.

How many staff members and volunteers do you have?

I’m the only full-timer. We have two part-timers – Michelle Jacobs is our administrative assistant and Ann Lanier is our bookkeeper.

We have about 30 volunteers and we are always looking for more. We really have two levels – those volunteers who attend the meetings and help make the decisions to organize and set up our events, and those volunteers who show up the day of the event, like our “Great Contraption Race,” to help with everything from directing traffic to selling water bottles and T-shirts.

If you want to volunteer, you can call our office (754-9105), go to our website at ithappenedtoalexa.org or email me, personally, at sandralaha@gmail.com.

What fundraising events do you have planned this year?

The “Great Contraption Race” is July 30 at Lewiston Landing. It’s a fun-filled, family event. It’s a water race down the Niagara River, on man-made contraptions, and it will be followed by an after-party in Youngstown with live music and great food.

Then, on Oct. 1, we’ll have a “Raising the Stakes Gala” at the Sheraton in Niagara Falls, which will be a fantasy casino night, with roulette, craps, poker, appetizers and some really high-end auction items.

Both of these events are open to everyone. They are fundraisers, but we are also trying to raise awareness that sexual assault happens to one of every four women.

When the organization started in 2003, it was the only one of its kind in the U.S. Is that still true?

Yes. And, we also pay for a support person to be there with the victim during the trial process so that they don’t have to be there alone. There was one mother, for example, who had two young children – both victims. The attacker had a whole room full of people in his support in court and it was overwhelming for the mother, but she didn’t have to be alone.

The people we help are so grateful and it makes me so happy to be a part of this.

And I can’t tell you how supportive and involved Tom and Stacey Branchini are. I can’t say enough about what amazing and wonderful people they are.

What other new initiatives have you undertaken?

Through social media, like Facebook, we’ve started Bowser’s Brigade, because Alexa’s dog is Bowser. We ask people to send in pictures of their pets with a message of encouragement, so that when someone who needs help comes to our website, they will see how much support they have.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.