Elizabeth Smart let her Juneau audience know that in 2019 she’s not just doing well, she’s better than she could have imagined.
Smart was the keynote speaker at the first-ever Reclaim Own and Renew (ROAR) Women’s Conference sponsored by Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. The conference celebrating female self-empowerment kicked off Friday night at Centennial Hall and continued Saturday with workshops.
“I am happier that I ever thought I could be,” Smart said near the conclusion of a 50-minute speech peppered with humor.
The sunny disposition and warm words were a stark contrast to the harrowing details of Smart’s abuse and abduction that were also shared in the speech.
Smart, now a national child safety activist, women’s empowerment speaker, wife and mother, delivered the event’s keynote address. She first came to the public’s attention after her abduction in Salt Lake City in 2002 and subsequent recovery nine months later.
“I wouldn’t change what’s happened to me because of the people it’s allowed me to meet, because of the organizations it’s allowed me to work with, because of the things it’s allowed me to do,” Smart said.
During the speech, Smart said love for her family enabled her to survive her kidnapping and helped her to heal afterward. She encouraged anyone in the audience who were survivors of abuse or trauma to find their family whether they were biologically related or a chosen network of close friends.
“The vast majority of abuse and kidnapping and violence come from people that you know,” Smart said. “They come from family. I want to say, if someone is hurting you, they’re not your family. You might be genetically related to them, but they are not your family. Your family are the people that have your back. Your family are the people who love you.”
“If you don’t have a family, find your family,” she added. “I’d say tonight is probably a good place to start.”
The ROAR Women’s Conference represented the realization of two longterm goals.
By speaking in Juneau, Smart had officially spoken in all 50 states, and she said visiting Alaska had been a dream since her girlhood.
“Actually, the summer that I graduated from junior high, going up to that summer, my parents talked about how we were going to take the biggest road trip on record for our family and we were going to drive from Salt Lake City to Alaska,” Smart said. “We were going to find this cabin my dad had built as an 18-year-old kid. We were going to have this great big Alaskan adventure, but that didn’t happen. Before we could leave, our lives changed forever.”
The conference also dream come true for Sherry Patterson, ROAR Women’s Conference Chair.
“It has been a dream of mine to have a women’s gathering,” Patterson said before the conference began. “Our hope and prayer is that ladies will gain a sense of self-image, self-worth and feel empowered heading into the new year.”
Patterson relayed that story during her turn at the lectern explaining ROAR’s vision. Other speakers Friday night included Leatha Merculieff, SEARHC Vice President/Executive Administration; Angela Shipley, SEARHC learning development manager; and Rose Dunleavy, Alaska’s first lady.
Patterson said it’s likely the first-year conference turns into an annual event.
The conference was attended by a sold-out crowd composed of women of all races and ages.
“There’s a buzz in our city,” Patterson said. “It exceeded our expectations.”
A survey was done to choose topics that Juneau women would find helpful, Patterson said, and that was used to create an agenda for ROAR’s second day.
Saturday’s schedule included breakout sessions focused on nutrition and exercise, self-image, the power of words, creative dance, balancing home and work, and seasons of a woman’s life. It also included a harp performance by Smart, who said she appreciates playing even though her young children mean her opportunities to do so are few and far between.
During Smart’s speech, she said she felt particularly moved to speak to a crowd the day after Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old Wisconsin girl who been abducted in October, was found.
Smart shared advice with the audience of more than 300 that she would give to Closs if the young survivor were present.
“I would tell her to never give up on happiness,” Smart said. “I would tell her you cannot change the past and as much as you want to return to who you were and the way things were before all this happened, you can’t change what’s happened, but that does not have to define who you are. I would want her to roar.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.