Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Nov. 8, 2017. On Tuesday, PEOPLE confirmed that the woman who helped kidnap Elizabeth Smart will be released from prison next week.
It’s a recent autumn day in Park City, Utah, and everything seems golden — the perfect excuse for another trip to the park for Elizabeth Smart, 30, and her two children, Chloe, 2, and 8-month-old James.
Smart, who moved to the ski-resort town after she got married five and a half years ago, lives near the park and adjacent soccer field and visits so frequently that “it’s like a second home,” she says.
As she settles her son onto a blanket on the grass and watches Chloe giggle with a new friend on the playground’s slide, Smart tells PEOPLE she has much for which to be thankful.
“My children have brought so much happiness and joy,” she says. “To me, they’re the very definition of love.”
Married to Matthew Gilmour, a Scot she met while both were serving missions for the Mormon Church in France, Smart wondered 15 years ago if a normal life and motherhood would ever be possible after she was kidnapped from her bedroom late one summer’s night in 2002 and brutalized by her captors for nine months before being rescued.
“Today, I’m so grateful for the small things,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively.
“I’m grateful for rain, because when I was kidnapped, that meant that I had something to drink,” she says. “I was grateful for when people would throw out their leftovers at restaurants in those doggy bags, because that meant that sometimes I had something to eat. I’m grateful for the sunshine, because it warmed me when I was cold. Certainly, I was grateful for my family and who they were and who my parents were.”
“I wake up every morning,” Smart says now, “and I feel like a very lucky and blessed woman.”
Her horrific ordeal is never far from her mind, however.
On Nov. 18, Smart, who works as a victims’ rights advocate and as a contributor to the syndicated TV show Crime Watch Daily, will have her story retold in a Lifetime movie she produced, I Am Elizabeth Smart. And next spring, she will release her second book, Where There’s Hope, an up-close and personal glimpse into her healing process.
“I decided to do [the movie] because they wanted me involved every step of the way, and I thought it might also help other victims and survivors,” she says.
Although Smart is happily wrapped up in trips to the park and “Family Night Friday” outings for pizza, she says it’s difficult to find a “happy medium” between allowing her adventurous daughter to explore and wondering whether she will be safe.
“There’s a part of me that’s always thinking, ‘Are the windows shut? Where is she at? Who is by her? Can I see her?’ I don’t want to let Chloe out of my sight,” Smart explains. “I will never regret being there for my children, watching them, making sure they’ll be okay. But I might regret not being there for them.”
As she speaks with PEOPLE, she tickles James and hands him Chloe’s ballerina doll, which her daughter has thrown down from the slide. In a few minutes, though, Chloe is back for her toy, wanting to play in the giant sandbox near James’ blanket.
When James begins to fuss, his mom gives him a pacifier and scoops him up in her arms, holding him close as his cries turn to smiles.
“At moments like these,” she says, “I really do feel like the luckiest woman in the world.”