Editor's note: This has been previously published on the author's website.
Two years ago on a cold blue night in Park City, Utah, 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 like flakes in a Wasatch snowstorm. Nineteen-year-old CJ VanderVeur was waiting to return to his mission assignment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was frustrated that permission had been delayed. He had all the necessary approvals, but a surprise letter invited him to wait a bit longer than expected.
“Why is this happening?” he wondered both privately and aloud.
Meanwhile, CJ’s mother, serving in the Snyderville Ward young women’s presidency, was hard at work trying to schedule Elizabeth Smart for a stake fireside. Both families are members of the Park City Utah Stake.
Because of her own past, Amy VanderVeur understood this palette of pain more than most, and she knew that Smart’s inspiring, well-known and faith-fueled survival story would impact their youths beyond what any earthly calendar can calculate.
As the evening turned to night, CJ quizzed his mother on Smart’s story. Not well versed in the details, the young man asked 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. Sariah recognized that through the years, Smart’s determination had become a gift to countless people around the world, particularly to young women.
Sariah felt something and quietly disappeared upstairs.
Soon Sariah 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.
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 their car, heading to the University Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Amy VanderVeur told me in a recent interview. “Sariah was one of the happiest people ever. Very outgoing and positive, she had a 4.0 GPA. She’d just presented a TedXYouth talk a few months before, and the TedX editors picked hers as the talk of the month. I had no clue she felt that way, that she wanted to die.”
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.
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, Sariah 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 and has already been admitted to the University of Utah.”
Two years after that defining night, Sariah continues to see a therapist twice a month.
“She’s doing better," her mother said. "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 preparing to return home in March from the Maryland Baltimore Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After so many sleepless nights at home wondering about 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 Smart was in their home and didn’t even know it.
“We know he needed to stay to help save 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 VanderVeur and Elizabeth Smart still haven’t met, but when they finally do, VanderVeur knows exactly what she’ll say.
“I’ll start with, ‘Thank you,’” she said. “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 Smart never gave up, hopefully more young women like Sariah VanderVeur won't ever give up either.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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