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Sonoma Women in Conversation

When: 4-8:30 p.m. Sept. 26

Where: The Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Highlights: 4-6:30 p.m. is The Experience, an expo with a chance to mingle, dine from food trucks, view demonstrations and learn about women-related businesses. The Conversation, which includes Jaycee Dugard and Dr. Tererai Trent, a writer and advocate for womens empowerment and education, is from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Cost: $10 for The Experience only, $58 for The Experience and The Conversation. Tickets can be purchased at socowomenevents.com

She had endured the kind of traumatic experience that is almost beyond imagination — being kidnapped as a child and held captive in backyard sheds for 18 years under the hands of a sociopath and pedophile.

But even after years processing and working through the horror of that experience in order to reclaim her life, the now 38-year-old Jaycee Dugard found herself suddenly forced to summon a different kind of mettle when a massive firestorm tore through what she had come to regard as her “protected space” in the village of Glen Ellen last October.

A significant part of Dugard’s recovery work was done on the semi-rural property owned by her therapist Rebecca Bailey, a nationally recognized expert on trauma recovery who incorporates animal therapy into her work. The night of the fire she was in Europe, and Dugard, who continues to work closely with Bailey in partnership with her JAYC (Just Ask Yourself to Care) Foundation, was helping to care for her horses in her absence. That night it fell to Dugard to try to save the animals she so loved and that represented an important part of her own healing.

“It was a big sense of responsibility,” she remembers. “It was terrifying. You just feel powerless.”

That is not a feeling that Dugard succumbs to much anymore. Ever since she and her two daughters were finally found in a backyard in Antioch in 2009 and freed, she has militantly chosen to take control of her own life and her own happiness with a positivism that has drawn her admirers around the world.

I thought, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to get through this?’ I called everybody that I knew that would help me and they came and supported me. And we got through it together. I was never alone. And that is what community is. You’re never really alone when you build your community around you. —Jaycee Dugard, who had to frantically save horses in October amid the wildfires

But an out of control wildfire bearing down on Bailey’s property in the middle of the night on Oct. 8 presented a new kind of threat that put her hard-won confidence to the test. She had five minutes, she said, to load four horses into trailers and evacuate them to safety in Tomales and two refused to cooperate.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to get through this?’ I called everybody that I knew that would help me and they came and supported me,” she said. “And we got through it together. I was never alone. And that is what community is. You’re never really alone when you build your community around you.”

That kind of courage, faith and resourcefulness is characteristic of Dugard. In the nine years since she and her two daughters were freed from their squalid prison and from the control of Phillip and Nancy Garrido, who kidnapped her while she waited for the school bus in South Lake Tahoe when she was only 11, Dugard has held firm to her early decision to not let adversity define her, poison her or hold her back from diving without hesitation, into life.

A survivor who has shared her story of captivity and discovery in two books — “A Stolen Life” and “My Book of Firsts,”Dugard will talk, about resiliency and recovery as well as the work of her JAYC Foundation on Sept. 26 at Sonoma State University. She will appear with author and motivational speaker, Dr. Tererai Trent as part of the Women in Conversation series sponsored by The Press Democrat.

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Her message? You can survive and even be “OK” after trauma, said Dugard, who, with Bailey and her foundation, has lent support to victims of trauma all over the country, including people in Wine Country who are struggling in the aftermath of last year’s devastating wildfires.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. But I learned from my mom, who never gave up hope that I would come home,” she said of her mother, Terry Probyn, who kept a candle lit in her heart for Jaycee’s return, even after the search for her had formally ended. “That was a long time. She knew I was alive. Somehow, some way, she went on with her life and took care of my sister the best she could. Knowing that gave me the hope that it was going to be OK. That everything was going to work out.”

In many respects Dugard is thriving. She lives in Northern California and has dedicated her life to helping others through the foundation she set up after receiving a $20 million settlement from the state for parole agents’ repeated failures to find her. Agents visited the Garrido home dozens of times but never checked the complex of storage sheds and tents in the backyard, despite reports by neighbors of seeing children there. Garrido was on parole for a 1988 kidnapping and rape conviction.

“You don’t think you can get through that thing, that what you went through or what you’re going through is impossible,” she said. “But if you make the choice that you want to be OK, you can be.”

Support team

She didn’t do it alone. She had the support of a good team — chief among them her mother and Bailey, who lost her home in the Nuns Fire that tore through the upper Sonoma Valley the hot windy night.

“It was only an acre and a quarter but it was very self-sufficient,” Bailey said of her Sonoma Valley ranchette where she lived and where families, like Dugard’s, came to recover after suffering deep trauma.

Dugard remains deeply connected to the area.

“This is the area where she healed,” Bailey said, "and she’s chosen to give back.”

Dugard’s foundation connects families in trauma to support and services that help them recover, including funding. Part of their model is to encourage various entities and agencies to work together to provide “Protective spaces” for people to work through their trauma. They are supported through private donations and sales from a website store.

“It’s important for me to give back to other families what we had been given,” Dugard said.

The Foundation also offers workshops for law enforcement agencies to help “overworked officers bring compassion, joy, pride and thoroughness back into their work.” They hope that the training will help officers develop a sensitivity and awareness to behavioral and situational clues that will lead them to take the extra time to search a house or property, actions that could ultimately save a life.

In Dugard’s case, it was two members of the UC Berkeley police force whose instincts and intervention finally led to her freedom. Ally Jacobs and Lisa Campbell became suspicious when Garrido came to the campus wanting to talk about incoherent plans for an event he was promoting. He brought with him two young girls who appeared pale and distant. The women did a background check and called Garrido’s parole officer, which set off a sequence of events finally leading to his arrest and freedom for Dugard and the daughters she bore as a result of his rapes.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children knew of Bailey’s work and connected her with Dugard.

Initiated a shift

They worked together for two years until Jaycee initiated a shift.

“Jaycee said she spent 18 years figuring things out and that what I really want to do is make some sense out of what happened to me. We spent three months retooling what would help her life moving forward, and helped her create this amazing foundation.”

Dugard travels the country sharing her story at the foundation’s workshops with law enforcement, teaching officers through the telling of her own story.

“It’s not about blame,” she said, “but about learning from my story and what they can do differently.”

With a grant from The American Legion, the foundation is working on a project to help law enforcement officers communicate with people who have communication disorders like autism. They’ve enlisted the support of animal behavior expert and autism activist Temple Grandin.

“A part of Jaycees’s story was about missed opportunities. Essentially, she’s being able to use her story to help people slow down and be more mindful and aware and less judgmental of people who communicate differently,” Bailey explained.

The foundation also has provided support for other families recovering from everything from kidnapping and other crimes to bitter divorces. Among them is a woman in Missouri who was kidnapped at age 10 and had nine children by her captor. The foundation is helping assemble a support team for her.

A part of Jaycees’s story was about missed opportunities. Essentially, she’s being able to use her story to help people slow down and be more mindful and aware and less judgmental of people who communicate differently — Rebecca Bailey, a therapist who has worked with Jaycee Dugard

Dugard sometimes directly provides support, depending on the situation.

“We’re really careful,” Dugard said. “A team determines if it’s appropriate therapeutically whether I come in or not and will this be beneficial for the family.”

“No other foundation does what we do,” she added. “It’s so unique. We can focus on a few families that truly need the kind of support you can’t get all in one place.”

One of the issues can be protecting a family from “the intrusive eyes of the press,” Bailey said.

That became a challenge for Dugard, who at times was hounded by a media fascinated by her story. For that reason, she does not disclose where she lives and guards the privacy of her two daughters, now adults in their 20s. She was only 14 when she gave birth in the backyard to her eldest daughter after laboring for hours alone behind a locked door. She taught both of them the best she could with her fifth grade education.

“They’re both in college and I’m amazingly proud of both of them for all they have accomplished,” she said.

“What was important to me is they were protected and they had a choice, and if they were ready, their story is theirs to tell in their own way. Even though they’re both in college now and can make that decision for themselves as far as I’m concerned. It took a lot to protect them, a lot of different agencies involved. It took a community and it really wrapped around us,” she said gratefully.

Less protective

She said now that they were young adults she’s less protective than she perhaps could be.

“I try to give them more freedom than I normally would like to. But perhaps I’m overcompensating for them having a lack of freedom for so long. They have a lot of common sense and I trust them to make good decisions.”

Dugard projects an optimism and lack of bitterness that may be hard for many people hearing her story to comprehend. She had to work at it.

“I wanted to be OK. I didn’t want to be that broken person that Phillip and Nancy wanted me to be,” she said of her captors. Phillip Garrido was sentenced to 431 years in prison, his wife 36 years to life, for stealing Dugard’s young life.

“I wanted to be OK especially for my two daughters who don’t deserve somebody that is broken,” she said.

Her years of captivity have given her a child’s delight and wonder in the small joys of life that others might take for granted. In 2016, she published “Freedom: My Book of Firsts,” in which she talked about her discoveries as she worked to rebuild her life — learning how to drive, getting a puppy, traveling to Ireland, discovering the wonders of good fresh food, in large measure thanks to Bailey’s chef husband Charles Holmes.

Her equilibrium didn’t return overnight; she was very stressed.

“When I was rescued in 2009 … it took me a year to go, ‘Oh, I can walk down that street myself.’ Whatever trauma you’ve been through takes time for your mind and body to figure out that you can do different things now and things have changed. Even with the fire, this was a re-trauma, a different kind of trauma. Losing this space I love and evacuating. The survivor’s guilt. There was a lot of emotion and we all had a little depression.”

You’ve got to make a butterfly garden. You’ve got to go out and pull the weeds. You’ve got to take the small things and make them count. —Jaycee Dugard

Dugard takes the view that to give in to darkness or give up on the goodness in life would be to allow the Garridos to take more of her than they already have, and she is unwilling to allow that to happen, not even when the wildfires threatened the foundation she had spent so many years rebuilding.

“Life is short and you realize how short it can be in a time of crisis. When I came out of the backyard, I said ‘I have this new freedom. I can do all these things,” she said. The firestorm was a reminder once again to cherish each day.

“You’ve got to make a butterfly garden,” she said. “You’ve got to go out and pull the weeds. You’ve got to take the small things and make them count.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat. com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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