Elizabeth Smart was the keynote speaker at the annual Healthy Woman Conference at Devis Middle School March 16. HERALD PHOTO/Matt Roberts
EVANSTON ó Nearly 800 attendees of the annual Healthy Woman Conference in Evanston March 16 heard a recounting of the tragedy experienced by Utah teen Elizabeth Smart but, more importantly, were lifted by Smartís message of hope and triumph in the face of unimaginable tribulation.
ďIt can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time,Ē Smart told the sellout crowd of her ordeal and her subsequent efforts to education children and their parents. ďBut Iím grateful that...I can do something about it, and that, because I have experience, people will listen and be willing to make that change.Ē
Smart, 24, was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home June 5, 2002, by Brian David Mitchell and, with the assistance of his companion, Wanda Ileen Barzee, was repeatedly assaulted and held captive until she was freed after being recognized by a biker in Sandy, Utah, nine months later.
The duo have since been sentenced to prison for their crimes ó Barzee for 15 years; Mitchell for life.
Smart has since been heavily involved in supporting sexual predator legislation, development of the AMBER Alert system, and even spent a year as a commentator for ABC News on issues dealing with missing persons. Along with her father, Ed Smart, she created the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to promote the plight of missing children and educational efforts to increase awareness of youths who may become victims.
The Herald spoke briefly with Smart following her presentation at the Health Womanís Conference.
Herald: Tell me about the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
Smart: My dad and I created it about two years ago, and we wanted it to focus on prevention, instead of trying to pick the pieces up after something has happened. All of those [missing persons-related] organizations are so important, but if we didnít have to have them, that would be even better.
So, we decided we would take on the radKIDS program. Weíve worked with them for the last 10 years, but we made that one of our focuses as a foundation. So, we do a lot with radKIDS to help support, promote and try to educate people on their options.
Our other major focus is to work with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force. What they do ó itís amazing. ...I canít imagine some of the horrors they see at work, ans then they have to go home and face their own families at the end of the day.
There are about 60 task forces in the United States, but unfortunately thereís not enough funding or manpower to have them working at their full capacity. And at the rate at which Internet pornography grows, itís unlikely it will ever disappear. The unfortunate thing is that so many people donít view it as a crime ó they say, ďOh, itís a victimless crime,Ē but thatís the shocking thing, because thereís proof of the victim right in front of your eyes.
Herald: Tell me more about the radKIDS program.
Smart: Itís a child-empowerment program that gives children the ability to have options because, unfortunately, though we would like to be there in every situation to protect them, we wonít always be, and we canít prepare them for every single situation out there. So, the best thing to do is give them the tools to decide for themselves what they should do, and make sure they understand that, when people tell them, ďIíll kill you if you make a sound,Ē the chances of that happening are very slim. ...When you fight back, youíve got more than an 80 percent chance of getting away.
When children realize these things, and then are given the tools and the confidence, they are able to decide for themselves the best thing to be done.
How many times do [parents] find themselves saying, ďDonít cross the street unless you look both ways,Ē or ďDonít touch a hot stoveĒ? But how many times do we tell [our children], ďI want you to kick this guy whoís going to hurt you right where it counts if he comes near youĒ?
Herald: Tell me about some of the work youíve done promoting sex offender registrations laws and other efforts.
Smart: Iíve helped in trying to get the sex offender registry bill through, I helped work on the AMBER alert [system], and I helped work on the Adam Walsh Safety and Protection Act. About six years ago, with the Department of Justice and with a couple other survivors, we helped write a book together on surviving kidnapping, and our methods of overcoming it. Each one of us was different Ė certainly we didnít cover every situation, but we covered a broader spectrum than just one of us would have.
Recently, my dad was in Cheyenne working to push a piece of legislation through that would enable law enforcement to take DNA when people are processed for crimes, and to use it in court. He was also in Nevada working on that, as well.
Herald: You did some work for ABC News. Are you still involved with that?
Smart: I did it for about a year, but [my dad and I] found that maybe I was spread a little bit too thin. It was an incredible opportunity and an incredible experience, but I donít think that right now is the time in my life for that.
Herald: What are your future plans ó for yourself and the foundation? I believe you were just married?
Smart: I would love to see radKIDS implemented in all elementaries across the U.S., because the younger you start them, the better prepared theyíll be. So, Iíd like to see that, thatís one of the bigger goals of the organization.
Personally, every time I think I know what Iím going to do with my life, something changes, and usually for the better. I want to continue doing what Iím doing, and one day have my own family.
The Elizabeth Smart Foundation can be found online at elizabethsmartfoundation.org. More about radKIDS can be found at radkids.org.