By Stacey Gualandi/ January 16, 2015
When 27-year-old Elizabeth Smart took to the microphone at the “Signs of Hope” 40th Anniversary Dinner for the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas recently, she was poised, polished and in total command.
It’s hard to believe considering that in 2002, at 14-years-old, Elizabeth was abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom, then sexually assaulted repeatedly, until her miraculous rescue nine months later. Her story captured the nation’s attention.
But as harrowing as her ordeal must have been, it did shape the woman Elizabeth would become. In the years that have followed, she made a choice to speak out for those who can’t.
Press conference video from 40th Anniversary Dinner/10-29, 2014
“I know what it feels like to be kidnapped, raped and to almost lose all hope. Yet, I was so blessed to have been rescued and to have a loving and supportive family who’s there for me every step of the way. How could I not?” said Smart at a press conference prior to the event.
I’ve always wanted to meet Elizabeth. As a correspondent for the television newsmagazine Inside Edition, I spent several weeks in Utah covering her kidnapping and the massive search for her. After she was rescued, I wondered how she would ever recover and live a “normal” life.
Years later, I am in awe that she has reclaimed her life after such severe emotional and sexual abuse. When I heard she would be the keynote speaker for the Rape Crisis Center event, I knew I had to attend.
During the press conference, Smart cited Center for Disease Control statistics that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be raped before they turn 18.
“I remember thinking that cannot be right…Every speech I’ve given, I’ve had someone come up to me and tell me how they were raped, abused as a child, or kidnapped. Having all these faces matching all of these numbers, it was overwhelming,” Smart told the media attending.
Smart says organizations and events like this give her hope to continue her tireless work raising awareness and advocating for victims through her Elizabeth Smart Foundation. She believes communication is a “huge factor in helping to keep your daughters safe.”
For four decades, the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas has steadily built education around communication and awareness. It created education programs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and now Executive Director Danielle Dreitzer says their emphasis moving forward will be on “true prevention.”
She says last year, they brought on their first teen interns. They held a “teen summit” in August to recruit empowered youths and then launched Hollaback! Las Vegas in December, a program to end street harassment.
“We are trying to get out there with messages that can really change how the community… views the issue of sexual violence,” says Dreitzer.
Having Elizabeth speak, Dreitzer says, is a gift. “Elizabeth provides us with a voice for all of those kids who may have told somebody and were not believed or didn’t say anything because they were so afraid.”
Over 300 people attended the dinner to raise money and to honor Congresswoman Dina Titus with the Legislative Hero award; RCC Board member Marcy Humm with the Commitment to Success award; and new media entrepreneur Nina Radetich with the Commitment to Sustainability award.
The bestselling author says what happened to her over a decade ago doesn’t haunt her every day. She learned to cope with the trauma, she says, through the tremendous support of her family and friends.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all in the healing process,” she says. “What worked for me might not work for anybody else.”
She says many women have ongoing guilt feelings that they were to blame or that they could have prevented the abuse. But Smart adds, “All of those feelings are wrong. It’s so important for women to know that rape is never their fault.”
While changes have been made in laws and the way organizations and advocacy centers treat victims, Smart admits there is a long way to go. And that includes continuing to spread her message of hope any way she can.
“Seeing so many people coming together inspires me and helps me realize that there are so many more people out there who are good and who want to do good things.”
Since visiting Las Vegas, Smart has turned her attention to the fight against human trafficking. In November, she spoke about the sex slave trade at the United Nations and has teamed up with Operation Underground Railroad, a group that sets up stings with local law enforcement to free children.
Photos Courtesy Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas
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