Susan Evans never found answers to why she was assaulted in the Minneapolis skyway, but she founded a website to help others get through life-altering events.
In one of her recurring dreams, Susan Evans has the powers of a superhero. Without cape or costume, she can fly over buildings and trees, and swoop down to save people from impending trauma.
The dream is the opposite of a real-life nightmare that Evans endured 20 years ago this Tuesday -- one that she still can't quite wake up from.
On the morning of June 3, 1988, Evans was walking to work through the Minneapolis skyway when a man later convicted of murder shoved her into a freight elevator room and ordered her to keep quiet while he ripped off her clothing. Evans might have been murdered that morning were it not for her blood-curdling scream, heard by passersby heading to -- ironically -- a skyway safety meeting.
Today, she sleeps with a large knife under her bed, and gets migraines whenever the weather changes. Plastic surgery hides a deep cut above her right eyebrow, which she suffered when her assailant threw her against an elevator door, and there is a patch of skin where the nerve endings are frayed and the skin feels like cardboard.
But Evans, 45, is defined by the attack in other ways, too.
It explains the manic energy of her public-relations office in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, where Evans and a network of researchers and freelance writers have created what may be the world's largest online survival handbook.
It's called www.WhatHappensNow.com, a website designed to help people prepare for and recover from life-changing events -- from house fires and tornadoes to bicycle accidents and family deaths.
Evans has invested more than $500,000 of her own money launching the site. And last week, she signed her first major distribution deal -- one that will showcase her website's content on more than 150 local TV stations nationwide and, hopefully, help make it profitable one day.
What started out as a quest for personal healing has become a fine-tuned business enterprise -- one of an estimated 20,000 businesses nationwide that exist to make money but also pursue a broad social mission.
These "for-profit philanthropies," as they are often called, generate annual revenues in excess of $40 billion, according to B Lab, a Berwyn, Pa.-based nonprofit group that tracks social enterprises. Their goals vary widely, covering everything from reducing waste to helping drug addicts.
"Our idea was to take the collective advice of America and put it in one place," Evans said. "Because life is big and complex. There's a lot going on. So let's get as many answers as we can and put it out there."
Answers. Evans sought them everywhere in the weeks and months that followed the skyway attack, but they were nowhere to be found. She joined a group of other attack victims; nearly all of them had recently been assaulted and, like her, were looking for answers.
"I wanted advice from someone who had experienced it 15 years out and it was part of her history, a survivor who could show me how to get through it," Evans said. "But you can't just walk up to someone and ask, 'Hey, have you ever been assaulted on the street?'"
The fact that the man was arrested that summer -- and was convicted of murder -- did not bring closure. Evans tried to intellectualize why she survived, and why she was targeted in the first place. "It drove how I functioned for quite a long while," she said.
Evans never did find the healing advice she sought. But in her quest for answers, she discovered a lot of other people struggling to cope with the unexpected. So she started collecting vast amounts of information and doling it out for free, while still running her public-relations agency. "Maybe helping people was a way to fill some void," she said.
Her breakthrough moment came two years after her attack, when Evans gave a friend 37 pages of notes on arranging a funeral. Her friend learned that her father, a veteran of World War II, was entitled to have "Taps" played at his funeral.
The friend thanked Evans profusely, saying the bugle playing "Taps" made the family proud. "I started crying," Evans said. "It galvanized me to say, 'Well, if this kind of advice can help people here, it can help people everywhere.'"
So Evans kept gathering data. In fact, over the ensuing decade, she and her husband, Erik, conducted hundreds of interviews with countless professionals, including police officers, meteorologists, emergency-room doctors, city officials, FEMA responders, and social workers.
The major challenge was distribution. She tried to persuade local TV stations to distribute disaster-preparedness brochures, but got no takers.
In 2005 Evans started the website, and readers from all over the country who had lived through disasters and traumatic events began sending her tips. Soon, victims began driving the website as much as the experts.
Evans mines the information for "small gems," as she calls them, that readers can't find anywhere else. She liked one recently from a reader in Oklahoma, who suggested that people who live in flood zones put their appliances in their upstairs attics instead of their basements.
"These may not be the end-all, be-all answers," she said. "But one of these may open the door to a solution that you could never have imagined."
But like many businesses with a social mission, the goals of making money and doing good are occasionally at odds. Evans turned away venture capital money because the venture firms wanted her to charge for disaster advice -- something she wasn't willing to do.
"Imagine you've just had a death in the family and you desperately need advice on how to deal with it, and here you're going to have to pay $15 to get it," she said. "It's unthinkable, really."
Evans also added popular topics, such as wedding preparation, pets and hospice care, that don't really qualify as disasters.
In fact, the most viewed and most downloaded portion of her website has nothing to do with tornadoes or trauma. It's the "Wedding Day Emergency Kit," an itemized list of everything a bride or groom should bring to a wedding. Among them, Evans has included "static cling spray" and "baby powder," which she recommends for cleaning up last-minute spills on white dresses.
Her hope is that WhatHappensNow.com will be the genesis of something more grand. Evans' goal is to eventually tailor the site to fit local areas, so people can receive tips based on their zip codes. They're pitching the idea to large advertisers, such as home improvement stores, that sell things people need during disasters.
The website gets up to 40,000 visits a month, double the traffic it had just six months ago, but Evans is hoping the recent TV distribution deal will increase her national exposure. Her short-term goal is to make enough to keep the site going from year to year.
Evans hopes to earn enough money some day to give back to police and fire personnel-- the people who came to her aid that June morning 20 years ago.
"They were tremendous to me," she said. "I know how hard they work, what difficult jobs they have, so that's where I would start to give if we ever have that luxury."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308