In an undisclosed location in the mountains of Central America, 20 young girls who were rescued from sex-trafficking live in a safe house. The house is clean, spacious, and cheerful, and the house moms provide valuable love and support as these trafficking survivors learn to heal. A large room serves as a nursery because several of the survivors have babies as a result of being trafficked. One 12-year-old victim gave birth just days after being rescued. A beautiful 5-year-old girl with dark eyes and braided hair lives with the rescued girls, but she is not one of their children—she is also a victim.
Just the Beginning
Operation Underground Railroad, an organization founded by LDS former Homeland Security agent Timothy Ballard, is well known for its dramatic undercover rescues of children trapped in sex slavery or slave labor. But that is just the beginning of their rescue efforts.
“Aftercare is the most important part of our mission,” says Timothy Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). “There really is no rescue unless and until the child is healed. Healing happens when the survivor is in a place where he or she can become anything they want—when they have the confidence and tools to choose for themselves the course they want to take. Our job is to provide what they need and remove obstacles so that they can achieve that.”
O.U.R. currently conducts rescue missions in more than 15 countries. But Ballard says they never perform rescue missions unless there is an appropriate aftercare solution already in place, such as the safe house in Central America.
“We have to assume that once we extract a child from a trafficking situation, there is no home for that child,” he says. “Unfortunately, many child victims don’t have a family to go back to. Either their families have abandoned them, or their families are part of the problem—either through neglect or willful participation in the crime. We have to be prepared to be the family.”
Jessica Mass, Director of Aftercare for O.U.R., travels the world interviewing care providers and finding loving, qualified rehabilitation options for survivors who are rescued by Operation Underground Rescue. Mass says there are three main reasons for trafficking: lack of family support, vulnerability due to poverty, and lack of education or vocational training. Therefore, she also builds relationships with each aftercare home to address these reasons:
“One of the major factors I look for when vetting an aftercare home is the long-term vision of what it means to provide care,” she explains. “Some facilities might have all the standard areas of care, but we have to find partners with the mindset of ‘Once you’re here, then you’re family for life’ because trafficking survivors require years of aftercare support.”
In addition to seeking out aftercare homes that provide counseling, medical care, education, and vocational training, Mass seeks facilities that provide a transparency that allows O.U.R. to continually check on the victims they have rescued. Not every situation is perfect, but they are continually finding additional ways to follow up with survivors. Through their efforts, they now have foreign-licensed government social workers and counselors that visit with children who might not otherwise receive such specialized services.
But if they have such stringent requirements, one might wonder why O.U.R. doesn't create their own aftercare homes.
“That is something we have considered," Mass says. "But at this time, we have chosen to form partnerships, collaborate, and be a force multiplier,” Mass says. “We believe that people who have invested years in the country are the experts and have a deep understanding of the culture. And recovery is handled differently in each country, depending on its laws.”
She adds, “When we partner with an aftercare home, all the children benefit from our assistance—not just those rescued by O.U.R. The heart of O.U.R. is to help and serve as many children as we come in contact with.”
From Victims to Survivors
Mike and Marisa Johnson, who are working as full-time O.U.R. volunteers in South America, help to identify the best aftercare centers available and then develop relationships with them. “It is important that rescued children have a safe stable home with caring adults watching over them, have the opportunity to get an education, and receive job skill training, therapy, and life skills training,” Marisa Johnson says.
Sex-trafficking survivors and volunteers at an orphanage in South America. Photo by Marisa Johnson
In addition to aftercare, the Johnsons collaborate with other organizations to prevent human trafficking.
“We have two areas we focus on for trafficking prevention: awareness and traditional education,” Marisa explains. “We work on making high-risk kids and their parents aware of what trafficking is, the warning signs to look for, and how to protect themselves against it. We go into schools, summer camp programs, and impoverished neighborhoods teaching and raising awareness. We go into that neighborhood seeking out kids who are not enrolled in school due to poverty or because of lack of documentation. We collaborate with another NGOs to get the kids up to grade-level reading and enrolled in school.”
A high-risk neighborhood in South America. Photo by Jamie Armstrong
Over the years, Mass has seen trafficking victims transform into strong, confident survivors. One survivor from Africa, now in her early 20s, returned to help younger girls who are going through the same healing process that she went through after being a victim of sex trafficking. She is now studying to become a social worker and is anxious to give back.
“This young woman represents the hope O.U.R. has for all those who are rescued,” Mass explains. “It can be a long and difficult road, but it is possible with the help of O.U.R. and its aftercare partners.”
“The beautiful part is that each of [the victims] have the ability to overcome their horrific pasts, and they are! It’s amazing to see that they can and do heal,” Marisa Johnson says. “There is no experience to this date that has impacted our family greater than the last six months [when we moved to South America]. Those we set out to serve have blessed and served us far greater than we have ever been able to bless them.”
Not Just Girls
Often times people assume that sex-trafficking victims are girls. But in countries like Thailand, young boys are in high demand among sexual predators.
“A lot of the boys we have rescued were sexually exploited by Western men coming over for different types of sex tourism,” Mass explains. Thankfully, O.U.R. has valuable partnerships with aftercare homes as well as law enforcement in the country.
Earlier this year, political talk show host Glenn Beck accompanied Ballard and Mass to Thailand to see firsthand how the aftercare programs work and how O.U.R. donations are used. He visited an orphanage where several rescued boys live.
“I was shown 111 case files,” Beck told his audience. “I saw eight files before I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’”
Beck learned that the orphanage was in need of additional social workers and additional counselors due to the facility's growth. For just an extra thousand dollars a month, Beck generously committed to support these needs.
“I have fundamentally changed,” Beck said of the experience.
Jessica Mass, Director of Aftercare for O.U.R., plays a game with a sex-trafficking survivor in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Operation Underground Railroad
“These children have been through some of the worst things you can possibly imagine, and yet at these aftercare homes they are healing and they are growing,” Mass says. “It’s a huge victory in these children’s lives when they get to start dreaming again and enjoy daily life.”
How to Help
There are several ways to help Operation Underground Railroad rescue and heal human trafficking victims. You can make a one-time or recurring donation, volunteer your time and talents, host an event, or attend an event. At different times throughout the year, you can also support aftercare by creating a Suitcase with a Mission. These are themed suitcases filled with supplies for trafficking victims. Examples of the themed suitcases are: Sport Suitcases, Craft Suitcases, Kitchen Suitcases, or Health and Beauty Suitcases. O.U.R. provides a list of items that go into the suitcase. Donors provide the suitcase, which can either be used or new. However, all items put inside the suitcase need to be new. Once the suitcase is filled and ready to go, it will be taken by the O.U.R. Aftercare group on their next humanitarian trip.
If you are in the Salt Lake City area this weekend, join Timothy Ballard at Operation Underground Railroad’s 4th Annual Gala on Saturday, November 4th.