BOUNTIFUL - It’s a chance to help save the children you only hear about in news reports.
Operation Underground Railroad, a group that works with local law enforcement to free child sex slaves from around the world, is holding a benefit 5 run/walk on Aug. 16 at 8 a.m. at Planet Fitness in Bountiful. The run raises money to fund O.U.R.’s rescue missions, which have freed almost 100 child slaves worldwide since opening their doors in January.
“It’s a dark subject, but it’s one that needs to be eradicated,” said Bountiful resident David Barlow, operations chief for Operation Underground Railroad, while speaking to the Bountiful Rotary recently. “We can’t do it alone.”
O.U.R. was founded by Timothy Ballard, who worked for the CIA before moving to the Department of Homeland Security to work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. He was also deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team, but become frustrated with the fact that in his position he could only rescue kids who were American citizens.
“He was only able to do about 10 percent of the cases that crossed his desk,” said Barlow. “It got to the point where he decided he could do more as a private citizen.”
O.U.R.s strike teams include former Special Forces members, Navy SEALs and other former military personnel trained in international sting and rescue operations. They work closely with local governments to make sure the cases against the traffickers are as airtight as possible.
“We do it right,” said Barlow. “We train local law enforcement, and make sure the traffickers have no future victims.”
Barlow first worked with the group as a volunteer, raising funds through biking events. After he joined the organization, he worked as support staff to help bust a child trafficking ring, waiting with the girls until all of the traffickers had arrived at the sting.
“We played the ‘how old am I’ game,” he said. “One of the girls was 15 years old, and she had a three-year-old child.”
The group’s mission also extends to the U.S., working with local police departments to catch those involved in online child pornography.
“We discovered a monster that hadn’t been on the police’s radar,” said Barlow of once incident. “He’d just been approved to be a foster parent.”
In many cases, O.U.R. is also able to provide follow-up with the rescued children.
“A good number of the kids are kidnapped, and we’re usually able to have some say in where they go,” said Barlow. “If home is safe, we reunite them with their families. If it isn’t, we make other arrangements for them.”
Those arrangements often include therapy, vocational training, giving them a therapy animal to take care of, and other elements that help the children heal and lead productive lives despite their trauma.
Planet Fitness is located at 155 W. 500 South in Bountiful. Registration is $25 for adults and $15 for kids, though organizers will also welcome donations from those who don’t want to participate in the run/walk. For more information, call 801-512-7525 or visit ourrescue.org.
“All of our missions so far have been funded by private individuals,” said Barlow. “But there’s 2 million children still out there. Someone has to do something.”