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Bike ride led by Irvine teen to fight sex slavery ends in Laguna Beach on Saturday

Mark Tenney

Mark Tenney, 17, of Irvine is leading a charity bike ride down the Pacific coast as a fundraiser for Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing victims of human trafficking around the world. The ride ends Saturday in Laguna Beach.

(Courtesy of Liz Tenney)

“Abolitionist” is a rare job description on any modern resumé, yet that’s how 17-year-old Mark Tenney might list his summer job.

The incoming senior at Woodbridge High School in Irvine is leading a 21st century Underground Railroad home to Orange County this weekend.

Harriet Tubman would be proud.

Mark, who organized the five-day, 450-mile Ride the Railroad charity bike ride down the Pacific coast from Monterey, will pedal into Laguna Beach on Saturday along with family members, friends and dozens of other supporters of Operation Underground Railroad, an organization dedicated to rescuing victims of modern slavery around the world.

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The ride is expected to raise more than $125,000 in individual and corporate donations for the nonprofit to combat human trafficking — child sex slavery in particular.

“It is really cool to see all the work that we put in over an entire year come together,” Mark said this week after the 80-mile first leg of the journey. “To be able to meet these riders, who are flying in from Seattle or Utah or wherever, it’s been a ton of fun, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in it.”

The teenager’s conscience was shaken two years ago by stories shared during a family dinner by Tim Ballard, who founded Operation Underground Railroad in 2013.

“The Tenney family, or anyone who supports us, you have to be willing to actually sacrifice a little bit of your own innocence to even look into this darkness,” said Ballard, a former CIA and Department of Homeland Security operative.

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After 15 years of government service, during which he was assigned to child welfare cases, Ballard felt he could be more effective as an independent operator.

He has recruited rescue teams of former CIA agents and ex-Navy SEALS who are infiltrating human-trafficking rings around the globe. Ballard said his units work alongside local government and law enforcement agencies in 18 countries, including the United States.

“It truly is an American problem,” Ballard said, adding that Western travelers and child pornographers are the primary consumers of the hidden sex trade. “We are driving the market on this whole dark, dark business.”

Mark said “most people are extremely unaware as to how big the problem is, and I would put my family in that boat two years ago as well.”

“Ever since Tim brought it up to us, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s an issue that’s real and serious.’ People need to do something about it, and we’re grateful to Tim that he does.”

Ride the Railroad became a family endeavor for the Tenneys last summer, when they started to plan a cycling trip. Mark came up with the idea of making it a fundraiser for Operation Underground Railroad, and three generations were quickly onboard.

Mark’s father, John, and 75-year-old grandfather are participating in the ride. Mark’s mother, Liz, and his two brothers are traveling the route in support of the cyclists. Relatives from Temecula and as far away as Texas also are participating.

Recruitment for the ride started with neighbors, then extended to the family’s church social circle. The ride slowly picked up other supporters, including local businesses that offered sponsorship. Irvine’s Golden State Foods, Newport Beach-based Pimco and Irvine-based Taco Bell came through with financial backing. The Berger North Foundation, a charitable trust in Nevada, is the ride’s top sponsor.

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“We’re extremely thankful to these companies for opening up their time to hear about this charitable event and then acting on it and sponsoring us,” Mark said.

“It was all just so inspiring; we knew we had to get involved,” said Shellie Frey, a vice president at Golden State Foods. “We wanted to get involved in any way we could.”

Ballard, 40, is a native of La Cañada Flintridge who now lives in Salt Lake City. He’s a father of six, and his family is in the process of adopting two more young children, a boy and a girl, from a rescue he performed in Haiti.

Ballard said Operation Underground Railroad, the subject of the documentary film “The Abolitionists,” released this year, requires about $50,000 per mission.

“I can tell you 100% that this bike ride, and the awareness and the resources that will come from it, will directly convert into rescuing children,” Ballard said. “Literally, this bike ride is saving children.”

The final leg of the journey will start in Malibu on Saturday morning and end in Laguna Beach around 11 a.m. A public celebration will be held at El Morro Elementary School, 8681 N. Coast Hwy., from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with Mark and Ballard scheduled to speak.


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