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An abduction survivor and a fierce advocate for education — two women born on opposite sides of the globe — celebrated common threads of hope, community and resilience as they shared their stories of overcoming staggering obstacles Wednesday.

Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped in Tahoe at age 11, enduring 18 years of emotional and sexual abuse in a “backyard prison” before escaping to dedicate her life to helping others. Tererai Trent, a young mother who rose from poverty and abuse in Zimbabwe, gained an education in America while raising five children and now helps other young women empower themselves with knowledge.

“Many can listen to stories of Jaycee, and look at my story … many can come to the conclusion that ‘Oh, poor Jaycee, poor Tererai, they must be victims,” Trent said. “No — she is not a victim. I am not a victim. We are part of the solution. I am a dreamer. I am the mistress of my own destiny. I refuse to let the past define who I am.”

I am the mistress of my own destiny. I refuse to let the past define who I am. —Tererai Trent

They shared their message at the Women in Conversation event co-sponsored by The Press Democrat. It drew an estimated 1,000 attendees to Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center.

Dugard was kidnapped June 10, 1991, as she was walking to a school bus stop. It was the worst day of her life.

Her captors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, confined her in sordid sheds in their Antioch backyard. She became a mother at 14. Her second daughter was born three years later.

It all could have shattered her, but she said she had a choice.

“First and foremost, I accept it,” said Dugard, 38. “I accept that it happened and that seems simple … but the most important thing is that I survived. It’s an important reminder for me every day. If I didn’t accept it and I chose to ignore it, I don’t think I would feel as healthy as I do today.”

Garrido was on parole for a 1988 kidnapping and rape conviction. Agents visited the home many times, but failed to investigate a compound of backyard storage sheds and tents, though neighbors reported seeing children there. What kept her alive through the barrage of torture was hope, she said.

“Hope is very powerful thing,” she said. “Even if life seems hopeless, which it did for me countless days, there was a drive in me to be OK and to get through it, especially when I became a mom myself and my two daughters relied on me. I wanted to instill the drive to survive.”

Dugard was found with her daughters in 2009. She now lives in Northern California and established the JAYC (Just Ask Yourself to Care) Foundation and wrote best-selling books about her struggles. She supports families who have experienced trauma, including abduction, provides educational programs and encourages the creation of protected spaces, what she considers refuges for healing.

Phillip Garrido was given the maximum possible sentence of 431 years to life in prison. He plead guilty to kidnapping and 13 sexual assault charges. Nancy Garrido was sentenced to 36 years to life after pleading guilty to kidnapping and rape.

Dugard has spent years healing with therapist Rebecca Bailey, a nationally regarded trauma recovery expert who uses animal therapy as part of her work. Much of their time together took place in Dugard’s own protected space on Bailey’s property in Glen Ellen, which was destroyed by October’s fires.

Dugard sought to address what has become a collective trauma for Sonoma County, outlining the sense of impending doom she now feels when she inhales the acrid smell of smoke or feels gusts of wind.

“Above all, be kind to not only others but to yourself,” she said. “Which can seem easy, but when you think about being kind to yourself you’ve really got to think about it, especially when you’re grieving the loss of a house or a life you should have had. It all comes down to choices — the choice to let what happened define you, or make you stronger.”

For Trent, who wasn’t given the chance to attend school but taught herself to read and write using her brother’s textbooks, the choice to inspire others is a critical one.

She was married at a young age and had three children by the time she was 18. She then met Jo Luck, the former president and CEO of Heifer International, who would help her articulate her goals. She also credits her mother — who told her to write down her dreams on a piece of paper and bury them.

She’s since earned multiple degrees, published best-selling books, twice appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and founded Tererai Trent International, an organization focused on providing quality education for children in rural Africa.

Her dreams are no longer buried in the crumbling dirt of her rural village. She lives them daily, and shares them with the world.

“If we give education and opportunity to women and girls, it’s the best investment any community can do,” she said. “Women and girls are the game changers, whether you like it or not.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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