ST. GEORGE – It is estimated that 2 million children worldwide are involved in sex trafficking and slavery. Dedicated to eliminating that number is Operation Underground Railroad, a group of volunteers that intends to rescue as many children as possible and see their exploiters apprehended.
Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad or OUR, will be at Dixie State University Friday evening to share a special presentation with the public about how his group helps rescue children from sex trafficking. His group’s efforts are also the subject of a documentary called “The Abolitionists,” which is slated to be screened Monday for one day only at select theaters.
Operation Underground Railroad
“Operation Underground Railroad was established to rescue a lot of these children,” said Steven Woodfield, a member of St. George Rescue, a group that supports Operation Underground Railroad though local volunteering and raising donations for the cause.
Woodfield made a short presentation to the Washington City Council Tuesday night during a council work meeting as part of a spreading awareness campaign of Operation Underground Railroad.
“The more we’re aware of it, it causes (the traffickers) to shrink into the shadows,” Woodfield told the council.
Operation Underground Railroad was founded in late 2013 by Ballard, a former CIA and Homeland Security agent who worked for 12 years in the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. He was also an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team.
“It’s an ugly world to be involved in,” Woodfield said of Ballard’s work. “It’s very dark.”
According to Operation Underground Railroad, the average age of a child first trafficked in America is 13 years old.
Working as a federal agent had its limitations for Ballard, Woodfield said, as there were times he would have to leave children behind in the hands of the monsters exploiting them. Believing he could accomplish more privately, unencumbered by governmental red tape, Operation Underground Railroad ultimately came into being.
Working together with local and foreign governments, OUR volunteers will arrive in a city or foreign county posing as individuals looking to sexually exploit children. After brokering a deal with area sex traffickers, they agree to meet at a certain location and exchange money for the children. Once the transaction is made, local law enforcement raids the location.
As of Tuesday, according to Operation Underground Railroad’s website, 529 children have been rescued and 182 suspected exploiters have been arrested.
Ballard, among others, will be at the Gardner Center at Dixie State University Friday evening to share more about their experiences with Operation Underground Railroad. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free to the public.
And just who are the volunteers who help rescue the children during these operations?
“We’ve been told the majority of them are ex-CIA agents, FBI agents, Navy SEALs, special ops forces – people that have been trained in intense situations, because these situations could possibly go bad,” Woodfield said.
Among previous OUR volunteers are Southern Utah-based photojournalist Dallas Hyland and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. Hyland and Reyes were part of an operation that unfolded in three Colombian cities in late 2014.
Read more about Dallas Hyland’s experience with Operation Underground Railroad here.
“These men and women are risking their lives to save these children, and they’re all volunteering to do it,” Woodfield said.
“It’s dangerous, it’s really dangerous,” Hyland said.
During the operation in Columbia, Hyland said his emotions went from fear to blistering anger at the people selling children for sex as he saw the the exploiters and the exploited first hand. What’s even more disconcerting is that the people involved in trafficking may be ones you’d rarely suspect, he said.
“The people that are doing this – they might be your neighbor,” Hyland said, adding that one of the traffickers they dealt with acted like a really nice fellow that, under different circumstances, he may have considered a friend.
Underneath the facade though, Hyland said the man “was straight-up evil.”
Ways to help
People can join the fight against child sex trafficking through Operation Underground Railroad in a number of ways listed on the OUR website.
Woodfield’s group, St. George Rescue, hopes to raise awareness of OUR’s mission in Washington County and also raise funds for the privately-funded organization.
The average rescue mission costs about $50,000, Woodfield said.
One of OUR’s campaigns to to get 2 million people to donate $5-$25 a month through its website.
Special event Friday
This Friday, the public has the opportunity to learn more about efforts to stop the pandemic of human sex trafficking, as well as hear about OUR’s endeavors first hand from Ballard, Reyes, Miss Utah Krissa Beatty, and special guest Jan Broberg, at the Gardner Center at Dixie State University from 7-9 p.m.
Admission is free.
For more information about the event, contact Steven Woodfield at 435-467-1570, Kevin Lounsbury at 435-773-3959, or Lindsey Christensen at 801-388-2115.
On Monday, Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres will join with other select theaters in a one-day showing of “The Abolitionists,” a film documenting OUR’s efforts in rescuing children and busting their exploiters.
“The Larry H Miller Theatres are donating all of the proceeds from that movie on Monday to Operation Underground Railroad,” Woodfield said.
Hyland, who was involved in an OUR operation documented by the film makers, said people need to understand what they see is truly more shocking than just what is portrayed on the screen.
“The reality of it is horrifying,” Hyland said.
Locations and times “The Abolitionists” will be shown can be found on the Megaplex Theatres Website.
More information about The Abolitionists movie can be found here.
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