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After Shannon Lambert was raped by a school acquaintance at age 15, she didn't tell a soul. At age 19, she told the world. At 30, she's an award winner for Pandora's Project, a website for victims of sexual assault.
Lambert, who lives in Minneapolis, was granted $25,000 from L'Oréal's annual Women of Worth program for the all-volunteer-run site, affectionately called "Pandys" by the 20,000 registered members who visit its message board and chat rooms. The name is taken from a song by pop star and rape survivor Tori Amos, who founded RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and whose music helped inspire Lambert to speak out.
New to her small-town South Dakota school when she was assaulted in the mid-1990s, the teenaged Lambert didn't say a word to anyone because "I didn't fully understand what had happened," she said. "I felt a lot of confusion and social pressures, very common with young rape victims. I just pretended it didn't happen."
During her 1998-99 freshman year at the University of Minnesota's campus in Morris, which she calls "very supportive of violence survivors, and women in general," she attended her first "Take Back the Night" event.
"The floodgates opened," she said. "That's when I realized I had to deal with it."
Her first step was to contact RAINN, then let friends and relatives in on her awful secret. The same year, she decided to appear on the TV news program "20/20."
"It went from something I kept to myself for more than three years to a very public thing," she said. "I felt like I'd been silenced for so long and this was a powerful way to end that, a way to expand on what Tori has done for other survivors by talking about it."
To coincide with the "20/20" spotlight, she started a small online message board, which received thousands of e-mails.
"That's when I realized the power of peer support," she said. "We recommend therapy to all members, but people aren't always looking for an expert to tell them how to get better, especially at first. Sometimes they just want to share and hear that there's a way out and things can get better."
Via word of mouth and broadening Internet access, the message board eventually drew survivors worldwide, although 80 percent of members are from the United States. As for the danger of malicious fakers masquerading as survivors to foil the chats, "of course, we've had them, it's the Internet," Lambert said. "But our staff is very experienced and at any hour of the day or night at least one is probably online, so we can act quickly."
The chat room on www.pandys.org, which is open only to registered members, is filled with stories that are hard to read, but also with "that sense of hope you can only get from someone who's been there, which you can't really get from a professional," Lambert said. "Sixty to 70 percent of members have told us that this was their first step. After that, many of them go on to join live face-to-face support groups or start therapy."
One Pandy's success story is Jessica Brown of Massachusetts, who was raped by a neighbor eight years ago.
"She did everything they tell you you're supposed to -- call the police, tell your family, go into therapy, join a support group. But she found it wasn't really enough. She still felt alone. And the message board filled that hole."
Brown is now vice president of Pandora's Project and sits on its board of directors.
Now a law clerk for Sherburne County and expecting her first child with husband Shaun Cooper, Lambert plans to use the award money to expand Pandora's library, which lends books to members via mail.
The winner among 10 nationwide finalists, she was chosen for the L'Oréal award by online vote -- boosted, no doubt, by a post from Amos pal and sultan of sci-fi Neil Gaiman on his blog, but primarily fueled by the e-mail campaigns of Pandora members who felt a personal connection.
"They felt like it gave them not only a voice, but recognition, as well, for the importance of the message board in their lives," Lambert said.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046