Steamboat Springs Tara Shaffer keeps her story neatly organized in a series of notebooks and loose sheets of paper.
It compacts into her small shoulder bag that she takes on occasion to the Bud Werner Memorial Library to work on her book — a memoir she’s writing about her life.
Shaffer is a curly blonde-haired ball of energy, hard working and quick to laugh.
Perhaps it’s in her personality to be able to openly share the story of how she was sexually assaulted 23 years ago.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“It wasn’t a loneliness anyone else could fill,” Shaffer said Friday, sitting in the Routt County Room of the library, where she likes to work. “It was something that had to heal in my soul.”
With the help of her family, Krav Maga self-defense, the process of putting her own words down on paper and the persistent role of music in her life, Shaffer said, she feels like she has started living her life in the past three years.
“I’m a goofball; I run around the house dancing,” she said. “I want to laugh for the rest of my life.
“From that day, I was a survivor because I was alive.”
Sharing her story
Shaffer doesn’t remember anything after he left her dorm room. She doesn’t remember going to sleep; she doesn’t remember crying.
It was three weeks into her freshman year at college. She felt guilty that she had a beer at the party he had walked her home from when she began to feel sleepy.
She didn’t know it was rape for three years.
Diane Moore, the executive director of Advocates Building Peaceful Communities, a local nonprofit that offers services for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, said that’s not unusual.
“It’s so common still for me to hear from a survivor that didn’t know it was sexual assault,” she said. “Also, survival skills sometimes are about minimizing and denying, just to survive the emotional aftermath.”
She said that she’s known Shaffer for about five years and that the two have collaborated on presentations to the community. Moore said her story not only raises awareness about the issue of sexual violence, but it speaks to the hearts of those who cannot yet tell their story.
“There are those who can’t, and don’t, whether it’s literally safety or just for not being in a place that they feel the confidence to be heard,” Moore said.
Shaffer is “an amazing woman, and to watch her own journey, she’s just powerful and amazing, and I think she’ll make difference for others,” Moore said.
A persisting issue
This year, Advocates has helped 85 clients, a number that is on pace to match the 300 victims the organization offers services to each year locally.
Moore oversees workers and volunteers who help the victims by offering safe places to stay, counseling, advocacy in the legal system and medical care.
This month, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Advocates is launching a local version of the Clothesline Project. During the next several months, survivors of violent crimes — not just domestic or sexual violence — are welcome to anonymously decorate a T-shirt with whatever design they wish to give a voice to their story. T-shirts also can be made for someone who died from a violent crime.
The T-shirts will be hung on a clothesline in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Moore said Advocates already has offered get-togethers for survivors to work on their shirts.
“Just for the women to sit there and talk about whatever they want to talk about and do their decorating, it’s so powerful,” she said.
Shaffer knows that every survivor’s healing process is different. Some may never come out and speak about what happened to them.
“It took me 23 years to get to where I feel empowered,” she said.
Now that she’s open to sharing her story, she said, survivors have come up to her and told her that they feel less alone after hearing about her experience — that they’re not the only ones who have felt that emptiness, the loneliness of the soul that Shaffer felt for so long.
She said she wants to make it her life to support those who have been through the same experience and to prevent assaults like the one she suffered from happening to anyone else.
“I look at my kids, and I want to do everything I can to keep them from going through this,” she said.
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com