There are a lot of memorable days in the news business, and one of them, for me, was the day Elizabeth Smart was found. The 9-month search for her had been a national story. Sadly, the vast majority of stories of missing children have tragic endings, so finding her alive and "well" made me gasp that day with surprise and delight.
Fast forward about ten years, and I get the opportunity to see her speak at the Junior League of Houston. She came on behalf of ChildBuilders, a non-profit group that tries to prepare children for the actions to take if someone puts them in danger.
Unfortunately, I couldn't see all of Smart's speech. Live TV gets in the way sometimes. But, I saw enough to be put I awe of her ability to tell her story and share her message of empowerment. It wasn't a speech, really. She just talked to the roughly 200 people at the breakfast as if we were sitting at kitchen table.
She had already brought the crowd to tears with details of the abuse she endured at the hands of captors Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, when she said one of the scariest nights was when Mitchell set out to kidnap another victim. He had announced who he was going after, and she was scared for that girl. She thought ahead to when Mitchell would return with her. She said she worried about having the strength or ability to protect the new victim from the same abuse she suffered.
How unselfish is that? As I see it, she still had plenty of reason to worry only for herself.
When I had the opportunity to interview her (after she spoke at length AND answered several questions from another reporter, from questions submitted on-line, sent in on line, and questions from the audience), I got even a better sense of her poise and dedication to her message.
It took a while to figure out where she would be to take questions from me and 2 print reporters. Was she going to sit or stand? Then she remained patient when we fumbled forever over where to clip the receiver for the wireless microphone. She explained what she was doing today was what she does now. She left her home Monday to speak to groups in one city and then another. She'll go back home Friday, and she says this is a pretty typical week.
I asked her how she got so comfortable telling her story? She says she realized she had no reason to fear because, however she told it, no one else could tell it better. No one could criticize or say she got some part of it wrong.
Then I asked -why- she was telling her story. I knew the answer was ultimately going to be that she wanted to help others, but the way she started her response totally surprised me.
"Because I feel like it would be very selfish of me if I didn't give back after so much was done for me," she said.
Trying to avoid being selfish would never have occurred to me.
Smart continued, "Knowing what can happen and what does happen, I want to change it so it stops, so other children don't have the same thing happen to them that happened to me."
Smart wants information to be made available to children that hadn't been made available to her at the time of her abduction. Does that mean that she has regrets about how she handled her own situation? Would she have done something different? I asked this, because she did have occasional brushes with the public, even with police officers, and didn't speak up about her captivity.
"No, I don't regret doing anything I did. Everything I did or did not do, I did to survive."
She showed more passion answering this than I had seen from her so far.
"Nobody can blame a child for whatever they may do while they are in captivity, or while they're being hurt, or while they're in a compromising situation. But, I think it's important to teach children what to do instead of telling them what not to do, and to help through education, to empower them, so that, when faced with a scary person or something about to happen, they know that they have options. It's not just knowledge sitting on the top of their head, but it's something that is ingrained in them so they know how to react. So they have a plan. So it's not just, 'Oh my goodness, this person's going to hurt me. What should I do?' "
Indeed, Smart is a survivor. Kids couldn't learn from a better -former- victim. And as she tells it, she's not a victim anymore.
Smart had said to the breakfast crowd, that after her first night home, her mother told her there was no doubt she had lost 9 months of her life she'd never get back, but that she shouldn't give her captors one more day. Smart admitted that didn't mean instant happiness, but she said her approach to the rest of her life changed in that moment.
Finally, and I'll admit I was a little embarrassed by this, my photographer asked, "So are you okay now?" He even said, "Are you still in therapy?" I winced, but Smart took the blunt questions in stride.
Smart credited her family with giving her all the love and support she needs. She got a bit of a chuckle out of saying that her siblings keep her ego in check. A girl with a great foundation. Good for her family for providing bigger safety net than anyone should ever need.
Smart didn't mention to us that she, herself, had started her own foundation, but I'll tell you. If you like her message and want to help, check out www.elizabethsmartfoundation.org and make a contribution.
While you are at it, check out www.ChildBuilders.org. This is a Houston organization raising money for a similar mission. But, it seems to me, ChildBuilders would be just as enthusiastic if you invited them to spread their message of safety and empowerment to a group of kids.
So, today provided yet another "wow" moment for this reporter. What a lucky person I am to meet that girl who was kidnapped in Utah at age 14, and who stunned the world by surviving 9 months of sheer hell. I never thought I would be able to say this, but I feel I can tell you first hand, Elizabeth Smart turned out great.
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