Described as "one of the most followed child abduction cases of our time," kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart retold her harrowing story that made national news nearly 10 years ago during the annual Cherish the Child symposium at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa Friday morning.
Around 670 attendees, volunteers and vendors attended the symposium, where Smart was keynote speaker.
Workshops before and after Smart's speech were also part of Friday's symposium, and Harford County Executive David Craig and Sheriff Jesse Bane were on hand to thank Smart for her hard work in child safety and to present her a proclamation recognizing her dedication.
Smart, who is now in her mid-20s and recently married, was abducted from her Utah home in June 2002 and held captive for nine months.
She recalled that as a 14-year-old she thought her life was perfect and wouldn't change, something many children feel.
"My life did change very dramatically," Smart said.
She calmly told the audience her experience of being forced out of bed by a man holding a knife to her throat and leading her through the mountains to a make-shift campsite.
"It felt like we were going forever," she recalled.
While speaking about the horrific chain of events that happened, Smart remained poised and eloquent, occasionally cracking a few innocent jokes.
It is evident that she has not let that lost period in her life define her, but explained it helped her grow, learn and become able help others.
Never lost hope
During those nine months as a captive, Smart said she thought about her family often and knew they wouldn't give up on finding her. She made a promise to herself that she would do whatever it took to get back home.
Eventually, Smart and her captors wound up in California. Knowing she had to get back to Utah to have a better chance of being found, she appealed to Mitchell's ego and convinced him that they needed to go back to Salt Lake City and to hitchhike there.
It wasn't too long after that Smart was spotted and police found the three.
She was finally free from her personal hell.
Smart called the day she was reunited with her family "one of the happiest days of my life." She thought her mother was "the most beautiful thing I ever saw."
At home, taking a bath after nine long months, Smart's mother gave her an important piece of advice: "Don't give him [Mitchell] another minute. The best punishment you can give him is to be happy."
She decided then to not waste another minute thinking about the man, not dwell on the past and live out her life the best way she could — happy and making her dreams come true.
"We all have a choice," Smart told the crowd. "Let bad experiences overwhelm our life and block out the happiness" or go through the healing process and find that shining light again.
Smart likened emotional wounds, such as hers, to physical ones, saying they should be cared for "and eventually it will heal."
Though there may be scars, she continued, "We can function with those scars."
"Now that I have those scars, I can do something with them," she said.
Advocate for child protection
Smart formed the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which focuses on child safety and protection, after a conversation with her father last year.
She said so many resources and efforts are spent on the reactive aspects of situations like bullying and abuse and abduction.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful," Smart asked, "if all of those things didn't have to happen?"
This is the basis of her education program, called radKIDS, for resist aggression defensively.
Through this program, kids are taught how to protect themselves from kidnapping or bullying, and, most importantly, taught self-confidence.
Smarts feels if something similar to radKIDS were around when she was a child, "Maybe I would still just be an average, everyday girl from Utah" instead of an abduction survivor.
She urged people in the audience to ask for the program in their school district.
"Miracles happen every day," Smart said, "and I'm living proof of that."