ST. GEORGE — Early Wednesday morning, five pilots from across Utah will take off from the Logan-Cache Airport, and within 24 hours, they will land at every airport in the state including St. George Regional.
The flights are a way to show support for Salt Lake City-based Operation Underground Railroad by raising money for the organization’s cause and increase awareness of the growing issue of child sex trafficking.
The pilots will be landing, weather permitting, at 45 public and private airports in Utah.
The local fundraiser is hosted by Flight for Freedom.
With close ties to St. George Skywest, pilot and flight instructor Dallan Wortham is the driving force behind the 24-hour fundraiser.
“I am very, very blessed and lucky to be where I am in aviation,” Wortham said. “There are a lot of people that don’t have the same opportunity that I did growing up because there are a lot of children who are kidnapped and used for abusive purposes.”
It was a lightbulb moment two years ago after meeting Operation Underground Railroad’s founder Tim Ballard. A former member of the United States Department of Homeland Security, Wortham decided to roll his love for flying into a fundraising event to support the organization.
“When I figured out more about Operation Underground Railroad it was really touching,” Wortham said. “Looking into this organization made me want to do something. I am not part of Operation Underground Railroad. I was just touched by their mission.”
Some estimates are that across the globe there are more than 40 million modern-day salves, including more than 2 million children, who are caught in the web of sex trafficking and labor slavery, a number that could be underestimated.
Wortham is not alone in his volunteer support for Operation Underground Railroad.
Celebrities such as violinist Lindsey Stirling, actresses Marisol Nichols and Carly Schroeder, Dancing with the Stars Chelsie Hightower, media personality Montel Williams and head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin are listed as ambassadors on the organization’s website.
The goal of Operation Underground Railroad has become personal to Wortham.
“I have a son who is 10 months old, and there are multiple stories who have had their children swept up, abducted in plain sight and forced into abusive circumstances like sex trafficking or slavery,” Wortham said. “I look at my son, and it made me want to do something. I expect the portion of my support to be a success.”
Wortham said he didn’t want to stand on the sidelines. Although he does not have a law enforcement background, he knew through Operation Underground Railroad he could make a difference and raise awareness.
Operation Underground, founded in December 2013, has about 20 employees and thousands of volunteers. It may be small, but it is growing both in size and importance.
Emily Evans, senior of marketing and public relations, and Jani Dix, director of outreach, told St. George News they are working to help spread awareness of the child sex trade industry and the workforce slavery epidemic gripping many countries across the globe.
To meet the demand, the organization has operations in 25 states and 25 countries.
“We partner with local government and law enforcement agencies to support them in their fight against child trafficking,” Dix said. “We are not a vigilante group. Everything we do facilitates law enforcement and government doing what they do.”
Though many think child exploitation is an overseas issue, the United States is actually one of the leading consumers of child pornography and sex trafficking.
“We have to fight this epidemic,” Dix said.
Events like the ones the Freedom Flyers are putting on are helpful avenues in raising awareness and funding.
Buy-in at the local level including city, state and federal government officials, as well as the business community, is crucial to helping eradicate a growing problem, Evans said.
As a 501 (c) (3), Operation Underground Railroad cannot participate in lobbying efforts. But that doesn’t mean they will not take a proactive role in combating child sex trafficking and slavery.
“This issue is more common than anyone thinks,” Evans said. “It’s happening in every major city across the United States and foreign countries. What we do is work with law enforcement to make a difference.”
The organization model is to train law enforcement, provide them with the tools necessary to combat child slavery and create something sustainable at the local level, she added.
“Although we work hand-in-hand with local governments and law enforcement, we can work much faster,” Evans said. “We make sure we always are (visible) with local authorities in our efforts to eradicate this.”
The numbers, she added, are astronomical.
Though some children are abducted off the street in broad daylight, some come from troubled homes. Often these children exhibit warning signs before they disappear.
“People really need to know if it is happening under your own roof, at your school, in your community,” Evans said. “Becoming aware is step one.”
Although experts say it’s becoming a cliche, oftentimes the key is more open and honest communication with children.
“We always encourage parents to be open about this topic with their children,” Evans said. “Everyone, including parents, need to know this is happening. Not just in third world counties, but it is happening here in the United States as well.”
But Evans is optimistic that the number of victims of sex trafficking will someday be reduced.
“When the organization was founded, human trafficking was not a buzz word or something people talked about,” Evans said. “In the six years we’ve been around, it’s become more of a topic that people are seeing is an absolute problem.”
According to the U.S. Department of State, human trafficking affects every demographic, exists in virtually every country in the world and reaps an estimated $150 billion in illicit profits for human traffickers globally.
Modern slavery is an especially egregious crime because it involves physical or psychological abuse and deprives people of their free will. Human traffickers profit from the exploitation of their victims, who are often isolated, manipulated and threatened.
Victims also remain silent because they fear their families may be harmed if they go to the authorities. Compounding their plight, victims of human trafficking also frequently don’t identify themselves as victims or know their legal rights.
“This is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise,” Evans said. “You can sell cocaine to someone once, but if you own a child, if you own them as a slave you can sell them many times a day.”
Evans said local efforts like the one in Utah are an important linchpin in making a difference.
Through Operation Underground Railroad’s website portal, Your Rescue, people can donate, find fundraising activities or start a fundraiser.
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