“I am grateful for what happened because it taught me so much … I learned so much and I realized what a problem kidnapping, child abuse, sexual abuse, bullying really is in our society,” she said.
“(Child abuse) is such a difficult topic to talk about because no one wants to think about their child being hurt. No one wants to think that there are people out there who are sick enough to hurt a child, to take advantage of a child, but they are out there. There are so many out there actually that for every square mile in America, there would be one. I am (honored) to be here today because of the stance that you are taking and the education you are seeking and for what all of you do every single day.”
Smart was the keynote speaker for the all-day event, which invites the community and members of local child advocacy centers to learn how they can prevent child abuse.
Monday also wrapped up the 19 Days of Activism hosted locally by the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia and nationally by the Woman’s World Summit Foundation.
For nearly an hour, Smart told the story about how Brian Mitchell and his partner, Wanda Barzee, abducted her, how she was rescued and how it made her grateful to be alive today.
The night she was abducted, June 5, 2002, Smart said she was woken up to the feeling of a cold, sharp object on her neck.
“I have a knife at your neck, don’t make a sound, get up and come with me,” she said Mitchell told her.
She was lying in bed next to her 8-year-old sister and Mitchell had reportedly been planning the abduction since November 2001.
She recalled walking through the mountains north of her Salt Lake City, Utah, home with her “captor,” as she called him, crawling on her hands and knees through the scrub oak.
“I’m going to be that girl on the news … whose body would be found,” she said she thought to herself during that time.
Shortly after meeting Barzee at a tent in the middle of the woods, Smart said Mitchell deemed Smart his wife and raped her.
“I remember lying on the floor of the tent feeling absolutely worthless,” she said.
She woke up the next day with a cable tied to her leg and the other end tied to a large tree.
This tragedy didn’t keep her down though.
Smart said thoughts of her friends, more specifically her mother’s morning ritual of singing to wake Elizabeth and her five siblings up each day, kept her spirit alive.
“I decided that no matter what happened, if it was within my power, I would survive,” Smart said. “It didn’t matter if it were three days or 30 years. I would make it home one day. That decision saw me through nine months of a lot.”
Smart and her abductors ended up in California and while trying to determine where to go next, she underhandedly convinced them that “God wanted them to return to Utah.”
“Maybe that just stroked his ego the right way because he went and asked and he said, ‘You know, I think you’re right, we are supposed to go back to Salt Lake,’” she said. “I was so excited!”
They hitchhiked back to Utah and just outside Salt Lake City, police picked up Smart after two people had called in to report they thought they saw her.
“Seeing my family again for the first time … I thought, this must be what heaven is like,” she said. “It was the happiest day of my life, second to my real wedding.”
The morning after she was found, Smart said her mother gave her the best piece of advice she’s ever received.
“You may never feel like justice has been served or true restitution has been made, but the best punishment that you could ever give (Mitchell) is to be happy, is to follow your dreams, to do exactly what you want to and never let him take another second of your life,” she recalled. “Never think you can’t do something because of what he’s done to you, because that will be him stealing more of your life away than he deserves … the best thing you can do is to be happy, move forward, never give up, be so stubborn that you finally do win.”
She continues to carry that message with her while speaking about her cause and the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
“There are so many more children who are waiting for their miracle, waiting for their happy ending,” she said. “What you do every day does make a huge difference and God bless you all.”
Cynthia Howell, of Smyrna, executive director of the state advocacy center, said Monday’s conference was the best turnout so far.
“We were expecting between 150 and 200 and we should have about 380,” she said.
Although Howell said Smart helped draw the large crowd, she believes people want to be educated on child abuse and neglect.
“There are so many different facets to it and by us taking one day and focusing on a theme and being able to put statistics out there and links on resources, that was great,” she said about the 19 days of child abuse prevention themes leading up to the event. “We actually had partners who asked that we start it earlier next year.”