Jason Wright: The night Elizabeth Smart unwittingly saved a life

Jason Wright

Two years ago on a cold blue night in Park City, Utah, well-known kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart saved a teen’s life. But the real miracle? Smart wasn’t even there.

She didn’t need to be. The spirit of her struggles and story were heard loud and clear.

In the home of Jared and Amy VanderVeur, questions were flying. After a short break, 19-year-old CJ VanderVeur was waiting to return to a full-time church mission in Virginia and was frustrated that permission had been delayed.

“Why is this happening?” he wondered both privately and aloud.

Meanwhile, CJ’s mother, a leader in her church young women’s group, was hard at work trying to schedule Elizabeth Smart, also of Park City, for a speaking engagement.

Because of her own past, Amy VanderVeur understood this palette of pain more than most, and she knew that Smart’s inspiring faith-fueled survival story would impact their youth beyond what any earthy calendar can calculate.

As the evening turned to night, CJ quizzed his mother on Smart’s story. He wondered why so many were so interested in hearing from the young victim of abduction and abuse.

Across the room, CJ’s younger sister, Sariah, listened intently. It was the first time she’d heard deep details of Smart’s horrific experiences. Gradually Sariah felt something and quietly disappeared upstairs.

Later she called her mother to her bedroom. There, with tears on her cheeks and pain in her eyes, she handed over a sharp knife, a suicide note and goodbye letters to her siblings.

She had a plan, and that was the night she’d scheduled to end it all.

What changed?

Smart’s heroic experiences rang in Sariah’s ears like bells of hope. If she can do all that, if she can survive, if she can devote her life to bringing hope to the hopeless, surely Sariah can do the same.

“I want to live,” she told her mother.

Before the night was over, the VanderVeurs were in the car headed to a hospital and doctors immediately admitted Sariah. Driving home at 2 a.m., the VanderVeurs were heartbroken that they hadn’t seen the signs of depression and anxiety.

“I didn’t think it was real,” Sariah’s mother Amy told me in a recent interview.

“Sariah was one of the happiest people ever. Very outgoing and positive, she had a 4.0 grade point average. I had no clue she felt that way, that she wanted to die.”

A few weeks later, CJ was approved to return to his mission and Sariah was released. It was short lived, however, as both doctors and family knew that with more than 500 cuts on her body, she had work yet to do.

Approximately 100 days after nearly ending her life, Sariah was home again and enrolled in high school. “I was worried for her,” her mother said. “I worried how people would treat her, even teachers. It wasn’t easy, but she is so strong and she caught up in her schoolwork quickly. In fact, she threw herself into it and will graduate a full year early.”

Two years after that defining night, Sariah continues to see a therapist twice a month. “She’s doing better. She’s still not exactly the same outgoing, bubbly, funny girl she was before, but she’s getting there. And her courage to now share her story is more than a step, it’s a leap!”

Both Jared and Amy VanderVeur are confident that as their daughter leans on faith and family, she will return in every wonderful way. The entire family hopes that by sharing their story, someone or two or three will be inspired to hang on to hope and seek help.

Two thousand miles away, Sariah’s brother, CJ, is serving as a missionary in Woodstock and is preparing to return home in March. After so many sleepless nights at home wondering the whens and whys, he now knows the reason he was still in his Park City kitchen that February night in 2014.

It was for that conversation, those questions and that moment when Elizabeth Smart was in their home and didn’t even know it.

“We know he needed to stay to help Sariah’s life, to trigger that discussion,” CJ’s mother said. “The spirit has confirmed and we can never deny it. That knowledge gives us all peace that the Lord is in the details of our lives in ways we cannot always see.”

Amy and Elizabeth still haven’t met, but when they finally do, Amy knows exactly what she’ll say.

“I’ll start with, ‘Thank you.’ As someone with my own trials as a teen, I will thank her for speaking out and for being a champion to so many young women who haven’t found their voice yet. I will thank her for taking a stand, for fighting and never giving up, even when she didn’t know how she could possibly go on.”

And because Elizabeth never gave up, hopefully more young women like Sariah VanderVeur won’t ever give up either.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or http://www.jasonfwright.com.