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Many survivors of abuse suffer in silence. She used her Make-A-Wish to help change that.

She might be 10 years my junior, but I want to be like her when I grow up.

Many survivors of abuse suffer in silence. She used her Make-A-Wish to help change that.

Lena Strickling may seem like your average young adult, but she's so much more. She's a survivor.

At 18 years old, not only has she been battling a form of cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma, but she is also an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. When I read her story, she became my new role model.


There is a whole lotta power in this small package. Image by Collectively.

Lena is determined to use her life to make the world a better place.

When Make-A-Wish, the organization whose mission is to help children with life-threatening illness fulfill their dreams, reached out, Lena knew exactly what she wanted to do. She didn't go for your typical fun, well-deserved wish like a trip to Disney World or meeting her favorite celebrity.

She wanted Make-A-Wish to help her publicly share her story of abuse.

Lena has gone through a lot in life, but she says battling cancer is nothing compared to the pain of the abuse she endured. She carried a lot of shame about being sexually abused — until she started speaking out. When she finally told her mother, the shift in her life was huge. It was a pivotal moment in her journey to recover from the trauma and get her abuser out of her life.

She wants to inspire others to speak out so they too may feel the wave of relief she felt when she finally shared her story — and so others can think differently about what a survivor looks like.

Make-A-Wish gave her the experience of a lifetime.

Lena asked to spend a weekend with two of her closest friends, who are also survivors of violence, so they could join her for a photo shoot. Before the shoot, all three women had their hair and makeup professionally done. After the photos, she got to share her story online in video and print, so it can be spread far and wide.

GIFs from Collectively.

Her wish shows the power of speaking out as a survivor.

The truth is, sharing one's story of abuse can be helpful for both the survivor and people who hear it. Studies have found that there are psychological benefits from helping others and that storytelling can be a healing force after trauma.

Coming forward can also help make our society better — it helps combat the stigma that pressures so many to stay silent. According to a 2013 study, more than 1 in 4 girls and 5% of boys report experiencing sexual abuse or assault by the age of 18. Compare these numbers to the estimated 12% of child sexual abuse incidents reported to the authorities. Many feel too ashamed to share their history because of misinformation and victim-blaming. But Lena wants to change all of that.

This in no way means that everyone should or must divulge their survivor status to others. I am a firm believer in survivors knowing what is best for themselves. Deciding whether to come forward is deeply personal, influenced by a lot of factors. And some people decide that coming forward is not the best option for them. But Lena made the decision that it was.

Thanks to her bravery, we are one step closer to getting rid of the stigma that survivors unrightfully face after being victimized.

From one survivor to another, I want to say thank you, Lena.

Watch this amazing young woman in action in Collectively's video here:

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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This article originally appeared on 12.17.14


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