The story of Elizabeth Smart’s childhood kidnapping took center stage at a conference on human trafficking Wednesday, as the former captive recounted her 2002 abduction in Salt Lake City and months of sexual abuse. “Everything you’re doing makes a difference,” Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour told the law enforcement officers, health care professionals and social workers in attendance in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “People like you brought me back.”

The conference, Tuesday through Thursday, was sponsored by the U.S. attorneys of North and South Dakota and Avera Health, a Catholic hospital system in the region. A victim of the Jerry Sandusky underage sexual assault scandal at Penn State also spoke.

In an effort to save other children from a similar fate, Smart shared her story. She was seized at knifepoint by a man later identified as Brian David Mitchell from her Salt Lake City home at the age of 14, and repeatedly threatened with death and raped over nine months. “I thought, ‘this has to be part of my dream. This can’t really be happening,’” Smart-Gilmour said of her abduction, USA Today reports.

According to Smart-Gilmour, who is now 26 and married, she believed that her parents Lois and Ed Smart would no longer want her after she was forced to marry and then “consummate” her "marriage" to Mitchell. “If my parents knew what had happened to me, they’d think, good thing we had six kids. We have five others. We don’t need her anymore,’” she said.

Elizabeth Smart A month after safely returning home, former missing child Elizabeth Smart poses with her father, Edward, and mother, Lois, at the White House on April 30, 2003. Photo: Reuters

In spite of her fears of being turned away from her family, Smart-Gilmour said she persevered, eventually convincing Mitchell, a “religious fanatic,” and his wife Wanda Barzee, into believing that returning to her home state of Utah, after traveling as far as California, was part God’s “divine plan.” “You’re God’s best friend,” she reportedly told her captor. “I’m sure he’d tell you.”

Following their return to Salt Lake City, Smart said he was terrified to speak to officers who greeted them until one pulled her aside, convincing her to reveal her true identity. “I remember feeling so lucky to have survived,” she said. “These two people, they hadn’t won. I’d won.”

Despite the conference unveiling a new screening tool in an effort to address the growing problem of human trafficking, Smart-Gilmour said parents everywhere need to be aware that in the age of the Internet, children are at risk no matter their socioeconomic status or location. “It doesn’t matter if you live on the wrong side of the tracks or the right side of the tracks," she said. "It can happen to you."