SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Holloway walked up to the booth in the crowded Salt Palace Convention Center Saturday, his hand outstretched, offering a $20 bill.
Someone took the cash, returning with a t-shirt and $15 in change.
"Keep it," Holloway said. "You guys are doing a good thing."
In a venue packed to the gills with people of all ages dressed as favorite heroes and anti-heroes from films and television shows for Salt Lake Comic Con, another man in an "Abolitionist" shirt might be the closest to a real hero. Timothy Ballard, CEO and founder of Operation Underground Railroad, recently left the job he held for over a decade at U.S. Department of Homeland Security where he fought child sex crimes to focus on helping even more enslaved children.
Following a panel discussion Saturday, he and producer Gerald Molen, who has produced a number of films, including "Schindler's List", presented their trailer for "The Abolitionists." It is a documentary about Ballard's commitment to find and save victims of child trafficking around the world.
"The frustration I had was that the majority of organizations I would find, I couldn't touch them because it was outside the purview of the United States," Ballard said of his decision to leave his job with the government. "So many kids were falling through the cracks."
In December, he left his job. By January 1, Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit that works with governments around the world in fighting child trafficking was born.
Within two months, they had saved 35 children, Ballard said. They have already deployed "jump teams" to locations between Mexico and Columbia, working in cooperation with the governments and law enforcement agencies everywhere they go.
"We're not going to be told no anymore," Ballard said, recalling an operation in which they could only save certain children — those considered within U.S. jurisdiction. "If I could have gotten three more days, we could have saved a dozen more kids. I don't care who they have to do with. At that point I know I'm going to have a meeting some day with my Maker and I didn't want him to ask me 'What did you do about those kids?' and not have an answer."
Molen and his colleagues had already enlisted Ballard, who is also an author of books on American history, to serve as a historical consultant on an upcoming film. When they learned of Ballard's mission to save as many children from trafficking as possible, they decided their next film would be "The Abolitionists."
"When I found out Tim's story and the realization that these kids are experiencing evil, it just kind of blew me away," Molen said. "I just wanted to do what I could and my guys were totally in sync with it."
As a child growing up in rural Montana, Molen said his parents would tell stories that left him hanging on every word. He knows there is a great power in storytelling, calling it "one of the greatest things we have in front of us."
He spoke to the especial power of true stories Saturday, and said that's what made "Schindler's List" so moving. He said Steven Spielberg didn't begin working on the story for almost 10 years until after the rights were bought.
"Steven wasn't quite ready," Molen said. "Steven didn't know how he wanted to approach it. Then it became very simple — tell the truth. Tell the story."
Though he said it's tough to equate "The Abolitionists" with "Schindler's List," they both highlight evils and "man's great inhumanity to man." He hopes that when "The Abolitionists" comes out, it will make an impact.
"We need the people to step up," he said, noting that the film was privately paid for and that donations go solely to Operation Underground Railroad. "Whatever money comes in goes to spreading that bright light (on the issue)."
Ballard said the objective is to shine a light so bright that those who are enslaving children will decide it's too dangerous and quit. He said there are many parallels between their efforts to free the estimated two million children in sexual slavery and the efforts of abolitionists in the 19th Century.
"Our goals are high. We want to stop the problem," Ballard said. "We believe we can stop this and we can."
David Barlow, who helps run Operation Underground Railroad, said the film will help people confront the realities of the problem.
"It's something somebody doesn't want to see, they would rather look the other way but we can't solve it until we stare it in the face," Barlow said.
He said it was a partnership with a production studio in Utah — Creative Media Group — that led them to Comic Con, but that the reception had been great. The average donation, he said, was $105 and pointed to the "OUR" acronym for the nonprofit organization.
"It's 'OUR' cause, it's something we're doing together with the public, something people can be involved in," Barlow said.
Shannon Black, of Orem, attended the panel discussion and said she was interested in the way it emphasized story telling and the tool it can be to affect change.
"I was already aware of the human trafficking issue, but this was really interesting thinking about the difference between what can be done through political channels and as a private citizen," Black said. "I believe personally that stories can be a great vehicle for social change helping society come to terms with the ugliness under the surface."
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