In a standing ovation, over 900 people welcomed 25-year-old Elizabeth Smart to the Bayfront Convention Center.
On Tuesday, Smart stopped by Erie, to share her traumatic story of survival.
"I thought it had to be a nightmare," said Smart. "I didn't think it could be real."
Back in June of 2002, Smart was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. For nine months, her captors held her against her will.
"What outsiders don't see is that sometimes words are stronger than chains," said Smart. "I had both. I was chained up at points, which rendered me unable to escape. But I had also been told, thousands of times, if you ever escape, we will kill you. If we don't kill you, we'll kill your family."
Police were eventually able to find Smart 18 miles from her home. In 2010, both of her abductors were sentenced to prison. One of them received two life sentences.
"I was walking out of my moms bedroom and she said what this man has done to you, is terrible, and there aren't words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is," said Smart. "He's stolen nine months of your life that you will never get back. The best punishment you could ever give him, is to be happy."
So that's exactly what Elizabeth has done. Through her experience, Smart has become an advocate for child abduction recovery programs. She also helps raise awareness of sexual abuse.
"Every community suffers from it," said Smart. "The more we speak out about it, the more awareness we can bring to it, the greater chance we have of stopping it."
And for families facing similar situations, Smart offers these words....
"There's always hope," said Smart. "No matter how dismal the odds seem. There are always miracles. I came back. There have been many others who have come back alive. So it's never completely hopeless. There's always hope."
Smart's speech was part of a celebration for the Crime Victim Center of Erie County. They're now celebrating their 40th anniversary. For more information on the organization, check out: