I WILL SURVIVE
10 years later Smart still spreads message of hope
In a time of terror and brutality, it can be as important as food and water for survival.
Elizabeth Smart held on to it 10 years ago, after she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City, Utah, home and taken on a roller coaster ride of hell for nine months.
She was just hoping that her family was still looking for her, hoping she would come out alive. She believed that her family still loved her and still had hope themselves.
"I think hope is one of the most important things a family can have when their child disappears," Smart said. "As a survivor -- someone who has been there -- I know how I felt and how I never knew what was going to happen. I never knew if I was going to see another day, I didn't know what was happening on my family's side. One of the most important things a family can do for their child is to never give up on them, always have hope for them, to pray for them, to not forget their child's memory."
For the nine months she was held in captivity, her kidnapper forced Smart into marriage at the age of 14, continually sexually assaulted her, kept her locked up and transported her across state lines. All Smart could do was hope her attacker wouldn't kill her and her family.
Prospects of finding an abducted child dim as each month passes, but on March 12, 2003, she was found in a town only 18 miles from Salt Lake City. That day started a healing process for the now 24-year old Smart.
She visited Okoboji as part of the 8th Annual Lakes Health Conference at the Arrowwood Conference Center. The weekend conference is a joint effort between Iowa Lakes Community College and Northwest Iowa Community College.
Speakers, exhibits and programs are tailored toward an audience of heath care experts, but Smart relied on a different kind of care upon her return home.
"I'd have to say the biggest expert that helped me was my mom," Smart said. "She's always been there for me, she's always been willing to do whatever it took to help me. I love her and I just wish everybody could have as good a mom as I did."
Smart admitted she was a little skeptical as to whether or not she had a chance of surviving. She had never been away from her family for any extended period of time.
"As a 14 year old girl -- being gone 4 or 5 months -- I wasn't sure if people were still looking for me," she said. "I think it's important for families of children who have been kidnapped to certainly not drag themselves down forever. I think they should continue on, but I think they should always be looking for their child, always have hope that they are going to come home, that they're not forgotten, that they still have a place in their heart, in their home and their family. You just never know what is going to happen. There are plenty of happy endings that could belong to any family whose child is missing."
Today, Smart tours the country, sharing her story and advocating protection against kidnapping, sexual assault and child abuse. She wants everyone to become more aware of how to get through a crisis like the one she experienced. Many people find their own ways to heal, she says.
"My message is that we do have all these trials," she said. "We can't really judge anybody else's, we all come from different backgrounds and different lives. You can't say, 'well what I went through was harder than what you went through' because you don't know. Just because something has happened to you doesn't mean it is going to ruin the rest of your life or control what you can do or who you become, you can still do whatever you want and still become whatever you want to become, and that's ... hope."
In recent years, Smart has opened up and talked with people throughout the country.
"As I've gone around and met different people, I think the one thing that I've learned is that anyone can stand up on a stage and have a story to tell about their life about some trial they have struggled with or are still struggling with and what they have done and how they have overcome it."
It wasn't always easy for Smart to share her story or talk about how she handled the healing process. When she first returned home after those nine grueling months, she only wanted to move on.
"Honestly, until the trial, I didn't do a whole lot of speaking out about it," she said. "Once my trial was over, I felt like it was something I should do --the next step."
The trial -- which wrapped up in December 2010 -- found her kidnapper, Brian Mitchell, guilty on two counts of kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison on May 25, 2011. Mitchell's estranged wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, was convicted two years earlier for her role in the abduction. Barzee testified at Mitchell's trial.
With court testimony in the past, Smart now focuses on creating hope for other people in similar positions. Smart has made it her goal to move on, not to forget the ordeal, but to see the positives and try and help others who may be affected by a kidnapping or sexual assault.
"I think of my life as a piece of string," she said. "If I blacken the part that I was gone for, that would be less than one 24th of my life. I mean that would just be one small, small dot on this piece of string and I wouldn't want it to take more than it already has."
She got married in February and is enjoying life as an adult.
That said, she is protective of her younger siblings. When she's babysitting, Smart isn't comfortable leaving them unattended in another room.
"Honestly, sometimes, it doesn't even feel like it ever happened," Smart said. "So many wonderful things have happened (since the kidnapping) and I've been able to pursue many different things. I've been able to fill the last nine years since I came home with a lot of good things."
As for the next 10 years and beyond, Smart has learned not to lock in plans. She doesn't know where life will take her next.
"I am open to looking at where I can make the biggest difference, where I'm needed the most," she said. "And if it comes to a point where I'm needed the most at home, then that's where I'll be."
To Smart, home is where the greatest amount of hope can be found.