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Famed kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart tells her story, offers advice to members of Jayme Closs’ community

Elizabeth Smart tells her story to a gymnasium full of people at Barron High School on Friday. She transitioned into how the community should act when they see Jayme Closs in public. Smart told them it is OK to smile but not OK to stare and if they felt compelled to talk to Closs they should write her a letter so she could read it when she is ready. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Elizabeth Smart tells her story to a gymnasium full of people at Barron High School on Friday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com2 / 3
A cameraman gets a shot of the crowded gymnasium at Barron High School before Elizabeth Smart tells her story on Friday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com3 / 3

BARRON, Wis. — Two months later, the "Welcome home, Jayme" signs still adorn businesses and government buildings in this close-knit community of 3,400.

It's a striking indication of the city's ongoing support and concern for 13-year-old Jayme Closs, who fled her captor in January, nearly three months after she was abducted and her parents were killed inside their Barron home.

But now, it's OK to begin moving on, famed kidnapping survivor-turned-activist Elizabeth Smart told a large crowd Friday night.

"It is important to allow Jayme her privacy, to allow her space," Smart said. "It is beautiful to see welcome home signs around town, but it is OK to take them down. Jayme will want her anonymity some day. No one will think you've forgotten."

Hundreds packed the Barron High School gymnasium to hear from one of the few people on earth who can say she knows what it is like to be Jayme Closs.

Smart, like Jayme, is a rare example of a victim who has returned home safely after a traumatic and highly publicized kidnapping. Her 30-minute talk was titled "Moving Forward" — her message focusing on how life can and should go on, for both Jayme and the town.

Smart called Barron a "wonderful community."

"I'm not glad this happened, but I'm so glad she has you," she told the crowd. "I'm so glad you all came out tonight because you care. Jayme will find her way forward. I hope you realize what an extraordinary young woman she is."

Smart, 31, gained national attention when she was abducted at knifepoint from her Utah home at the age of 14 on June 5, 2002. A married couple held Smart captive for nine months before she was rescued by police on a public street, less than 20 miles from her home, after witnesses recognized her captors.

Brian David Mitchell was later found guilty of kidnapping and sexual assault charges, receiving two life terms in federal prison. His wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, was released from prison last September.

In the years since, Smart has become a vocal advocate for missing persons and child safety measures, supporting legislation and appearing for speaking engagements across the country.

Smart said life right now for Jayme must be "overwhelming." She recalled her own journey, coming home to a closet full of clothes that no longer fit and having 20-minute trips to the grocery store turning into 90-minute spectacles.

"I remember wanting to live every second of life to the fullest," she said. "I didn't want to miss a moment. I couldn't wait to get my license, to go back to school, to go to my first dance, to have my first boyfriend — all those moments you dream of as a little girl. It might sound crazy, but I didn't even want to miss a homework assignment."

Smart said the community can continue to support Jayme by letting her get back to normal life — or, at least, as normal of a life as she can possibly live.

"You've gone through so much and you've pulled together and you've shown what it is to be a community," she said. "As Jayme moves forward, even though you're like her extended family, it's important to leave her her space. If you see her you can smile, but don't stare. If you feel compelled to talk to her, write a letter, and she can read it when she's ready."

Smart offered some further advice for community members.

"You should never ask a victim a question that starts with the words, 'Why didn't you?'" she said. "Because they hear, 'You should have.' And honestly, the victim survived. They already won. They did whatever it took. And to the outsider it may not always be clear, they may not understand, but I can tell you that whatever they did, they survived."

Smart said she was terrified of her captors and their threats to kill her and her family. Even when she was recovered by the police, she wouldn't initially admit who she was out of fear.

Jayme, though, escaped on her own from the Gordon residence where she was allegedly held by 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson for the duration of her captivity.

"Despite the horrors, she still escaped," Smart said. "That takes more strength than I could possibly imagine. She is a survivor, and honestly I can't think of higher praise than that. A lot of victims never become survivors. ... But Jayme is a survivor, and I know she will find her way forward and she will reclaim her life because she is strong."