Elizabeth Smart speaks at Lock Haven University

LOCK HAVEN — “Do not let the horrible things that have happened to you describe you or define your life. Your choices define your life. There is nothing that can be done to you that can take away your worth as a human being.”

That was the message of Elizabeth Smart, the 30-year old social activist and kidnapping victim, who spoke to a crowd of nearly 1,200 people Wednesday at the Price Auditorium at Lock Haven University.

“I encourage anyone that is experiencing that kind of darkness to find even the smallest speck of hope and hold on to it. I now have two children, with a third on the way. Family means a lot to me. There were times my faith wavered. I’m not perfect, but I never gave up hope that my family would find me,” Smart said.

At 14, Smart was abducted from her home by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee and held captive for nine months.

Lock Haven University welcomed Smart in partnership with the It’s On Us PA campaign, to share her traumatic story, to speak with the community on what it takes to reclaim one’s life and to promote her new book titled, “Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up.”

“We expected a large turnout, but it was a much larger turnout than even we expected,” Liz Arnold, executive director of communications and community relations at the university said.

Robert Pignatello, president of the university, welcomed Smart to the stage to share her “harrowing” story of tragedy and heartbreak.

The night Smart was abducted, her sister was witness to Mitchell entering their home and taking her sister at knife-point from her bed.

“I woke up to a strange man’s voice. I thought it was part of a dream. Those things don’t happen to me,” Smart said. “I felt his hand on my arm, I felt the knife at my neck. He told me to get up, don’t say a word and come with him. There was not anything that had prepared me for that moment … I never thought it would happen while I was laying in my own bedroom. That’s where I always felt the most safe.”

Her next nine months were bizarre and brutal beyond even the most vivid imagination, she said.

“I grew up watching the news, seeing the stories of the children that were abducted,” Smart said. “I didn’t feel like that was my world. I didn’t feel like it could happen to me or anyone I knew. I was just about to graduate junior high when this happened. I heard all the warnings; stop, drop and roll, never take candy from strangers. As a teenager, I thought I was prepared. I thought I had all the answers.”

After being taken out of her home, Smart was dragged out into a secluded camp in the woods by Mitchell and shackled by the foot to a tree with a metal cable.

“He led me into the woods to meet his wife,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘if a woman is there, nothing that bad could happen, right?’ As soon as I got there, that feeling evaporated immediately. Something in the way she looked, I could tell she was not there to protect me.”

After being bathed and taken home, Smart then was told she was now Mitchell’s new wife.

“I pleaded, I screamed, and he told me it was time to consummate the marriage,” Smart said.

After that, Smart was raped and sexually assaulted.

Smart then was repeatedly raped over her time of confinement and threatened with violence from a man, Mitchell, who claimed to be a religious preacher and likened himself to Jesus.

Mitchell claimed to be an angel and told Smart he was a Davidian God who would “emerge in seven years, be stoned by a mob, lie dead in the streets for three days and then rise up and kill the Antichrist.”

Smart, he insisted, was the first of many virgin brides he planned to kidnap, each of whom would accompany him as he battled the Antichrist.

In 2011, Smart founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which aims to support the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and to educate children about violent and sexual crimes. The foundation is making considerable efforts in the fight against human trafficking.

“At one point in my life, my captors seemed invincible to me,” Smart said.

“At the end of the day, no matter how devastating the circumstances, just make that decision to be happy,” Smart urged. “Don’t lose sight of your goal. No one deserves to be hurt, no one deserves to be sexually abused. I am working to bring awareness, attention, education, and ultimately, prevention to these issues. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Believe in yourself, and that nothing can take away your self worth or define you. The end goal in life is to be happy. Don’t let bad experiences hold you back forever.”