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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Kidnapping survivor Smart brings message of hope to NW Iowa

Monday, June 18, 2012

(Photo)
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... I never knew if I was going to see another day... 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 that there were times she didn't fully believe she would survive her ordeal.

"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... 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, and for those facing their own crises to find strength and healing.

"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. When she first returned home, 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 wrapped up in December 2010 and found her captor 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. His estranged wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee. was convicted two years earlier for her role in the abduction.

With court testimony behind her, Smart does not try to forget the ordeal, but focuses on the positives and helping others 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 spending time with her younger siblings.

"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 future, she is not locking in plans. "I am open to looking at where I can make the biggest difference. "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.