Elizabeth Smart tells tale of tragedy, triumph at CARE House benefit

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 30, 2012

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BIRMINGHAM — Nearly 10 years ago, Elizabeth Smart was, in her opinion, no different than any other Utah girl. That is until one night when a strange man entered her home, put a knife to her neck, and forced her to run off with him, barefoot, into the darkness. The 14-year-old girl wouldn’t see her home again for nine grueling months.

Smart appeared at The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham Jan. 26 to share her experiences at the Circle of Friends benefit for CARE House of Oakland County. It’s because of her experience as a victim of abduction and abuse, as well as her advocacy work in the years that followed, that Smart was an ideal keynote speaker for the annual event, which benefits the organization’s child abuse prevention programs.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I thought, this has to be a joke. This cannot be real. I’ve never done something that would cause someone to do something like this. We’re just an average family,” Smart said of the night she was abducted.

As her family, Salt Lake City police and other authorities worked tirelessly to bring her home, Smart was held captive in the mountains, tethered by the ankle and sexually abused by her kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, until she was finally discovered in March 2003.

Since her rescue, she’s worked as an advocate for victims of child abuse, kidnapping and other crimes against children. Last spring, she and her father founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to prevent crimes against children, especially child pornography, which Smart said is the fastest rising crime in the country, though only 2 percent of cases are investigated annually.

She also started radKIDS, short for Resist Aggression Defensively, which provides training for youth on topics including defense against abduction and molestation, safety at home and school, fire safety, knife safety and more. Since the advent of radKIDS, 250,000 children have been trained in the program’s curriculum. Of those children, Smart said 80 of them have been threatened with abduction attempts, all of which were unsuccessful — a figure she was pleased to share with the crowd during the benefit.

CARE House Interim Executive Director Cathy Weissenborn said the organization is thrilled to have Smart on hand to help make this year’s benefit a success.

“This is a very significant fundraiser for CARE House. We’ll raise about $80,000 today, and that goes toward our intervention and treatment programs for child abuse victims and prevention programs within the community.”

The evening before the luncheon, Smart had the opportunity to tour the CARE House amenities in Pontiac. She commented about the interview rooms and therapy rooms, and was particularly impressed with the prevention areas. She even offered to provide CARE House staff with training for her radKIDS program so it could be implemented at the facility.

“When I saw the prevention areas, I thought, ‘Yes! These people get it!’ Therapy is wonderful, but with prevention, you don’t need therapy,” she said.

Jennifer Wheeler of CARE House knows how momentous Smart’s appearance is for the fundraiser. The packed crowd of about 360 guests was a sold-out event.

“People were still trying to get tickets, which is good, because all of the funds will help families and help the kids that come to CARE House who don’t have a voice,” said Wheeler.

During the luncheon, guests fell silent as Smart recounted in riveting detail the horror she experienced while she was held captive, raped and forced into a polygamous marriage with the religious extremist she came to know as Emmanuel, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison.

Toward the end of her speech, she recounted a piece of advice her mother gave her the morning after her rescue, which she hopes will help other victims.

“She said, ‘Elizabeth, what this man did to you is terrible. There aren’t words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He’s taken nine months of your life that you will never get back. They’re gone. So don’t give him another minute of your life. The best punishment you can ever give him is to be happy, is to move forward, follow your dreams, to achieve your goals, to do exactly what you want to do. That’s the best punishment you could ever give him.’”

For more information about the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and radKIDS, visit www.ElizabethSmartFoundation.org. To learn more about CARE House of Oakland County, visit www.CareHouse.org. CARE House is located at 44765 Woodward Ave. in Pontiac.

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