This real-life hero dove into the child sex slave trade so he could rescue kids from it.

Tim Ballard isn’t a child sex tourist, but he knows exactly how to act like one.

It’s a strange, disturbing expertise to possess, but during his years as a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, that's what Tim Ballard was trained for. He learned how to infiltrate child trafficking organizations, arrest and prosecute the enslavers, and rescue innocent children from their twisted, wicked grasp. But first he had to create a convincing cover posing as a pedophile.

It’s a job we can all agree is vital and heroic. But it’s also one very few of us would sign up for.


In fact, Ballard himself refused it initially. He was working for DHS at the border in the mid-2000s when a superior asked if he’d help launch a Child Crimes Unit. Ballard had six children and didn’t think he could stomach seeing kids being used and abused in heinous ways. His wife Katherine agreed, worrying about what darkness might creep into their lives.

But the next morning Katherine came to Ballard in tears. “We’re making the wrong decision," she said. "The reason we think we shouldn’t do this is actually the reason we should.”

So Ballard, a man of faith, a doting husband, and a dedicated father of six, agreed to descend into the horrific—and mind-blowingly huge—child sex industry to rescue as many children from it as he could.

Whatever you imagine Ballard has seen, the reality is probably far, far worse.

Diving into the darkest side of humanity isn’t easy. “We started working these cases,” Ballard says, “and they were 1000 times worse than my mind could have conjured up . . . people call it child pornography, but I can’t call it that. It’s child rape videos, and it’s just devastating.”

He wasn’t the only agent who struggled to wrap his mind and heart around this kind of work.

In the beginning, Ballard says, there was little in the way of training materials for infiltrating child sex trafficking operations. In his book, “Slave Stealers: True Account of Slave Rescues Then and Now,” he recounted a story of one of his first undercover simulation exercises:

“I was sitting across the table from one of my undercover instructors, who was playing the role of a criminal smuggler, and I began to engage him in a conversation about how I might purchase children for sex on the black market. My stomach hurt as I brought up the subject, but I fought through it. About two minutes into the exercise, my instructor went silent and turned pale. He stood up from the table and said, ‘I can’t do this. I have a baby daughter.’ Then he walked out of the room . . .”

It’s a totally understandable reaction for a parent. In fact, it was the question foremost in my mind when I interviewed Ballard: Emotionally and psychologically, how do you handle this work?

Ballard is a hero, but he's not superhuman. His humanity drives his work—but also makes it that much more devastating.

The first thing you notice about Tim Ballard is his likability. He's the kind of guy you'd love to have living next door—positive and personable, principled but not pretentious.

He's also brutally honest about the toll this kind of work takes.

When I asked him how he learned to handle seeing the worst of humanity all the time, Ballard said it was really hard, especially in the beginning. Despite regular, government-mandated mental health evaluations, he almost quit several times. He says it got somewhat easier once he learned to stop superimposing his kids’ faces on the faces of the children he was attempting to rescue.

You have to learn to compartmentalize in some ways to do this work, which is a bit ironic, since compartmentalization is also what child traffickers do.

Ballard told a story of an undercover operation in which a trafficker was showing him photos of kids—9 to 11 years old—for sale on his phone. After they finished negotiations, the man said, "I want to show you another picture!" He pulled up a photo of a little girl, about the same age as the others, in a pretty white dress with a bicycle. Ballard asked who she was, and the trafficker told him it was his daughter. "I just bought her this bike for her birthday," he said, "I just love being a dad!"

This proud, doting father sold children to predators for a living, yet had no problem putting his own child into a completely different category.

Ballard says for most child traffickers, it's just business, no different than selling computers or cars.

It's hard to imagine how someone can divorce themselves so fully from their humanity for money. But people who buy and sell children see it as a business like any other. "It's nothing. It's a commodity," Ballard says. "They're so overcome by greed." Most traffickers are men, but there is always a woman involved in a trafficking operation, he says. She is often the one who lures children in and grooms them.  

"The scary thing is that they look as normal as anyone," Ballad says. "They’re mostly business people, they’re just out to make money. A child can be sold for 3-4 times the amount that a female adult prostitute would be sold for because of the novelty and demand."

And the demand, Ballard says, is huge. Child trafficking is a $32 billion industry and the fastest-growing criminal enterprise. Today there are 6 million children being sold, mostly for labor or sex.

And the highest demand is right here in the United States. The U.S. is the largest producer and consumer of child pornography, says Ballard. And due to that demand—and the fact that we tend to have money—Americans are child sex traffickers' ultimate clients.

There are basically two kinds of people who buy children for sex, says Ballard.

"The more tragic, but they still need to go to jail," he says, "is people who’ve been abused and who were abused as little boys, and something happens to their minds. Something gets wired into their head about what sex is. So then when they then become a mature adult, they want that sex relationship that they were the victim of at one point."

"And then there’s another group," he says, "which I think is the majority, where they tell me the story—and I’ve heard it so many times . . .'You know, I was 12 years old and I picked up a Playboy, and then all of a sudden one day the adults having sex wasn’t enough, that wasn’t doing it for me. So then I started going into the things that were strange—animals or stuff that was younger. And then I went from 17, then 16, then I tried 14, then 12 . . .'"

Ballard has interrogated many child predators and researched what makes them tick, and has concluded that a certain percentage of porn users will spiral into child pornography.

"Science backs this up about the brain of porn users—not that the majority of porn users would go to that length, but there’s enough. Even a small percentage, since porn use I think in like the 90% range for men—even a small percentage of those if they got affected this way, that’s what happens. The brain releases this cocktail of addictive chemicals, and that gets overstimulated. They need something different to get that high, and so they find themselves looking at 12-year-olds, and then flying to Costa Rica to rape a 10-year-old. And that’s where we find them."

Ballard quit his job with the government in 2013 when he realized he could save more kids with his own operation.

Working for the government, there are specific rules and laws about what you can and can't do, what is and isn't within your jurisdiction. After some missions left Ballard helpless to save kids he had promised families he would rescue, he decided he would found an organization that wouldn't be hampered by the government's limitations, so he could ultimately save more kids in more places.

That's how Ballard's non-profit, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), was born. Named for the secret network for rescuing slaves during the pre-Civil War era, OUR has created a network of former CIA, DHS, law enforcement officers, and more who cooperate with governments and international groups to rescue kids from child slavery. They train local law enforcement in finding and infiltrating child trafficking operations, provide forensic resources and support, and help get kids into vital after-care programs that help them heal from the trauma of their experiences.

One of OUR's rescue stories is being made into a movie starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino.

There is so much that I've barely even touched on here, including the harrowing, heart-wrenching stories from rescues Ballard has been a part of. One of those stories is being made into a feature-length film staring Jim Caviezel as Ballard and Mira Sorvino as his wife, Katherine. "Sound of Freedom" is currently in post-production. You can watch an interview with Ballard and Caviezel about the film and Ballard's work here:

We all have a role to play in helping battle child trafficking.

I asked Ballard what the average American can do to help with this issue. He gave the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who didn't have any specific skills or ability to rescue slaves, but whose book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," became a catalyst for the abolitionist cause. She used the skills she had to make a difference.

"What’s your skill set?" Ballard asks. "Find an application. Maybe you like to write, maybe you’re a blogger or an activist, you’re involved with politics, maybe you like to put on events and you can do fundraisers for different groups — there’s a skills set you can use and unless and until we all stand up and do it, this isn’t going anywhere."

"This is still the fastest-growing enterprise on the planet. It’s only growing, and the governments of the world are not going to put it down on their own. Everyone has to ask themselves the question, 'What do I do?' And whatever it is, do it, and apply it to this problem."

For more, see the Operation Underground Railroad website. OUR is an Accredited Charity with the Better Business Bureau's Give.org.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Wikimedia Commons and Goalsetter

America's ethnic wealth gap is a multi-faceted problem that would take dramatic action, on multiple fronts, to overcome. One of the ways to help communities improve their economic well-being is through financial literacy.

Investopedia says there are five primary sources of financial education—families, high school, college, employers, and the military — and that education and household income are two of the biggest factors in predicting whether someone has a high level of financial literacy.

New Orleans Saints safety, two-time Super Bowl Champion, and social justice activist Malcolm Jenkins and The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation hope to help bridge the wealth gap by teaching students about investing at a young age.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.