From trauma to triumph: Smart says there is hope even in the worst of circumstances

February 8, 2013 10:21:11 AM

Slim Smith - ssmith@cdispatch.com

 

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart lay in the dirt, sobbing after being brutalized by a man who had abducted her from her family's upscale Salt Lake City home hours earlier. The memories of that night remain vivid. 

 

"I was laying there on the floor, feeling so worthless and so filthy for what had happened,'' she told a hushed crowed at the Trotter Center Thursday night. "I didn't feel human anymore. It was like my soul had been taken away.'' 

 

In those moments after the assault, she contemplated two emotions that competed to dominate whatever time she had left. 

 

The first was despair. Hope, if it came at all, would arrive later. 

 

"I had seen stories on TV about what happens to kids in that situation,'' she said. "They got raped, then they were murdered. Right then, lying there on that mountain side, I thought how lucky those kids I heard about on TV were. They were dead. Nobody could ever hurt them anymore. For them, it was over.  

 

"But what did I have to look forward to? Even if somehow I got away and got back to my family, why would they want me? I wasn't even human.'' 

 

Smart, now 24, was the guest speaker at Financial Concept's "Kindness Raiser'' kickoff dinner. The financial planning firm welcomed more than 500 clients to the dinner, which it used to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary and launch a campaign based on "random acts of kindness.'' 

 

It has been almost 11 years since accounts of Smart's nine-month ordeal made news around the world, so the story, by now, is a familiar one. 

 

Abducted by a fundamentalist Mormon couple -- Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee -- Smart survived a nightmare of sexual battery, captivity and abuse in what has become a well-told story of the triumph of the human spirit. 

 

Today, Smart travels extensively to bring a message of hope to those who have been subjected to the sort of soul-crushing trauma that she endured. Through the "Elizabeth Smart Foundation," she has helped promote The National AMBER Alert, The Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act and other safety legislation to help prevent abductions, In 2011, she worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and four other recovered young adults in creating a survivors guide, entitled - "You're Not Alone: The Journey  

 

From Abduction to Empowerment." This guide is meant to encourage children who have gone through similar experiences to not give up and know that there is life after tragic events. 

 

But in those first agonizing hours after being taken from her home at knife point and brutally raped, Smart realized she was in no position to help herself, let alone anyone else. 

 

With prospects so grim that she dare not contemplate them, she chose instead, to reflect on her short life. 

 

"I realized that I had had a happy life and so I tried to remember those times,'' she said. 

 

She had heard somewhere that the first thing you forget about someone is the sound of their voice. For Smart, there was one voice she cherished more than all the others - the voice of her mom. 

 

In trying to remember the sound of her mother's voice, it's timbre and tone, her mother's pet phrases, Smart discovered something she hadn't even been looking for -- a reason to survive. 

 

"I was thinking about all the things she had said to me, just trying to remember what she sounded like when she said them," Smart said. "And I remember her saying, 'Elizabeth, there are two opinions that matter. One is God's, our heavenly father. The other is mine. I am your mother and nothing can ever change that. I will always love you, no matter what.''' 

 

The strength of that assurance lent resolve to the young girl. 

 

"I decided that no matter what happened, if it was another two or three days or if I had to wait for my captors to be dead and buried, I was going to survive and I was going to get back home," she said. "Maybe nobody else would accept me, but my family would. That's what kept me going." 

 

Nine months later, Smart was rescued from her captors when three different people noticed her and her captors walking along a Salt Lake City street and called 911 to report, "I think I just saw Elizabeth Smart.'' 

 

Hours after the police arrived on the scene, Smart was reunited with her family at a Salt Lake City police precinct. 

 

"My definition of heaven on earth was that moment,'' she told the audience. 

 

In the years since her ordeal, Smart seems to have made a remarkable recovery. She finished high school and went on to Brigham Young University, where she earned her degree in music. Along the way, she met a boy who is now her husband. She is a tall, confident young woman. There are no outward indications of the horror she endured. 

 

If it seems as though she simply picked up her life from where it was so brutally interrupted, it is a false assumption, she said. 

 

"What I went through, it wasn't easy," she said. "It's not like turning a light switch and the darkness disappears. But there is hope. You can get through it. That's my message.'' 

 

While Smart says it would be "crazy" to say that she was grateful for her ordeal, she can appreciate the opportunities emerged as a result. 

 

"Let's face it," she told her audience. "Without it, I'd just be another blonde girl from Utah. So I'm grateful for what it's been able to allow me to do, to have a voice and make a difference.'' 

 

In a less dramatic way, Financial Concepts staff and its clients hope their "Kindness Raiser,'' will make a difference, too. 

 

Although Thursday's dinner was billed as the launch of the campaign, the effort started a week ago and will conclude March 20, the first day of spring. 

 

The concept, borrowed from the "26 Acts of Kindness'' campaign that came in response to the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, has been expanded. Financial Concepts hopes to produce 2,500 random acts of kindness during its campaign. 

 

The "Kindness Raiser" is not limited to Financial Concepts employees and clients, however. Anyone who wants to promote good will within the Columbus area is encouraged to participate. The campaign works by having individuals hand out a "Kindness Card" when performing an act of kindness with hopes that this will inspire that person to do the same for others. Each card has a detachable numbered ticket stub on it. Financial Concepts has asked individuals to help tally the amount of kindness spread in the area by sharing pictures of their stub through the company's Facebook page (facebook.com/FinancialConceptsMS) or email (info@fincon.net). They also have a place to drop off ticket stubs at the Financial Concepts office at 1121 Second Ave. N. 

 

"What better way to make a positive impact on our community than through a simple random act of kindness,'' said Scott Ferguson of Financial Concepts. "We want to crush that goal of 2,500 acts of kindness. In doing this, we believe that, slowly, we'll start to change the world."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.