SARASOTA -- Elizabeth Smart, one of the most renowned child abduction victims in the country, will come to Sarasota County on Wednesday to speak about her harrowing childhood experience of being taken from her bed, raped and held captive by a man and a woman for nine months.
The event, co-hosted by Designing Women Boutique and Selah Freedom, a local human trafficking victim support group, begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Harry Sudakoff Lecture and Conference Center at New College of Florida, 5845 General Dougher Place, Sarasota.
"It was actually Designing Women's idea, and they've been big supporters of us. This is a difficult issue for people to learn about," said Elizabeth Fisher, founder and CEO of Selah Freedom. "We thought this would be a good draw."
Smart was only 14 when she was kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night in June 2002. The man threatened to kill her and her family with a knife and led her miles into a wooded area near her house, where he raped her and chained her to a tree. He and a woman moved her to California during that period, and Smart eventually convinced them to move back to Utah, where he was spotted, both were arrested and Smart was reunited with her family.
Smart has recently started traveling the country to talk about her experience and began the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which helps to both prevent and rescue trafficked children.
"When you are faced with a trial, don't give up, don't surrender," Smart said in a release for the event. "Move forward, because you'll never know the lives you'll be able to touch."
Fisher said the proceeds of the event that benefit Selah will go toward outreach, prevention and residential costs. The group is currently hosting eight human trafficking survivors in its East Manatee home as part of its residential rehabilitation program.
Selah has been expanding its prevention programs, recently receiving a $5,000 per month grant from Manatee County to teach about 1,000 girls ages 12 to 17, the overwhelming target for traffickers, how to recognize warning signals.
"Girls who take this class are 90 percent less likely to fall for the lines of a trafficker. Most people think of traffickers as some ugly guy ... with a gold tooth or something," Fisher said. "But it could be some good-looking, 26-year-old football player. And these girls think, 'Oh, he's my boyfriend,' but that's not what they really are."
To further increase Selah's support and growth, the organization is also opening a high-end women's clothing and furniture store in early November called Selah Vie. Benderson Development Co. donated a double storefront, located at its shopping center at the southwest corner of 34th Street West and 53rd Avenue West, next to Winn-Dixie, and a sorting location to Selah.
Fisher said they're taking both private and retailer donations of women's clothing and accessories, as well as furniture, to be sold in the store. All profits would go directly towards outreach, prevention and residential costs.
"The model is you're supposed to have retail generate 26 percent of your operating costs, rather than just rely on donations," Fisher said. "We couldn't justify the cost of rent, so when Benderson offered to donate the space, we thought, 'This is great.'"
Selah Vie will also be an awareness hub, with volunteer options and information available on the realities of human trafficking. They will accept donations at the store and at Budget Storage locations.
"We're hoping this will be the first of many locations," Fisher said.
Selah Freedom is currently looking for a store manager for Selah Vie and for volunteers to help with construction of the retail space before opening.
Fisher said they're also looking for businesses willing to underwrite the cost of tickets to see Elizabeth Smart for college students.
"We've had a lot of interest from that group that can't afford the tickets," Fisher said.
Smart will speak at 4 p.m. and a reception will be held at 5 p.m. General admission tickets are $95, and there are a total of 400 tickets and about 150 left.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby