Photos: Clayton Kershaw's mission to help victims of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic

Even though his Spanish is still a work in progress, Clayton Kershaw had no problem connecting with kids in the Dominican Republic. "Baseball is a universal language here," he says. Mike Stocker for ESPN

Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has long felt a connection to the Dominican Republic.

"It's obviously a significant place for baseball," said the three-time Cy Young winner, noting that several of his teammates have hailed from the country. When Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, learned of the rampant child trafficking in the Dominican Republic, they looked for ways to help.

During the offseason, the Kershaws -- along with former major leaguer Adam LaRoche and his wife, Jennifer -- traveled to Santo Domingo to meet with officials from the International Justice Mission (IJM), a faith-based organization that fights slavery and sex trafficking, particularly child exploitation. The group had an audience with Dominican Republic president Danilo Medina, visited the city's red-light district with investigators and spent an afternoon playing baseball with survivors of sex trafficking.

"They looked and acted like any other kids," Kershaw said. "But what they had been through was anything but normal."

The Kershaws flew coach from Miami to Santo Domingo, and fellow passengers didn't recognize the 6-foot-4 hurler.

"Ellen and I have always talked about what our giving mission is or what we feel most called to do, and kids are right at the forefront of that," Kershaw said.

As they toured the Dominican Republic's National Palace, the Kershaws admitted they were "nervous" about meeting President Medina.

Kershaw, a Texas native, wasn't shy about showing off his Lone Star State pride, however. Two years ago, he reached out to IJM's office in Dallas, where the Kershaws live in the winter. Last year, IJM became an official beneficiary of Kershaw's Challenge, the pitcher's foundation, which focuses on helping children.

Kershaw's meeting with the president was featured on TV news programs and in newspapers in the DR. After Kershaw shared his concerns about child sex trafficking in the country, Medina assured him that his office would support IJM's efforts.

"I'm excited to meet the people on the front lines who have dedicated their lives to fighting the trafficking and slavery in the DR," Kershaw said after his meeting. "You can write checks, which is awesome. Every nonprofit needs the support. But to put boots on the ground and go see it can change your heart."

That night, Kershaw and his group went undercover in Boca Chica, an area known as a hotbed for prostitution in Santo Domingo. Investigators explained how they work with local authorities to find and free victims -- and to arrest the perpetrators. "If I didn't have that knowledge going in, I would have wondered, 'Why can't we just get these girls out of here?'" Kershaw said. "You have to uproot the [traffickers]. That's how you effect change."

"Talking about sex trafficking is not comfortable," Kershaw said. "That's part of the reason to get the word out about it: Because exposing it will bring people out of the darkness. The more people who know about it, the less likely that it will continue to be such a widespread problem."

The bus pulled up on a side street adjacent to Boca China, a three-block stretch of restaurants and bars closed off to vehicles. "Two girls came up to us almost immediately," Kershaw said. "One of them spoke pretty decent English. [We] learned she wasn't from the Dominican Republic. She had come here ... and there were possible signs of trafficking. Once she sat down and realized that we weren't interested in what she was after, you kind of just saw a sadness come back over her, like she didn't do her job. It was heartbreaking to see what the girls have to go through on a day-in, day-out basis. They've been beat down for so long that they need help to get out."

Child sex trafficking, which IJM describes as "a form of modern slavery in which someone coerces or deceives another person into commercial sex exploitation for profit," remains a significant problem in the DR. According to IJM, nearly five million of the estimated 40 million enslaved children worldwide are believed to be the prey of sex traffickers. Tens of thousands of those victims are Dominican girls.

The next day, Kershaw headed to Manny Mota's Campo de Sueños (Field of Dreams) stadium to get in a workout and bullpen session and to celebrate a "day of joy" with survivors.

Kershaw spent an afternoon playing catch with survivors and sharing stories. "To hear what they've been through is heart­breaking," he said.

In 2017, IJM helped Dominican authorities convict a man who exploited six boys. Four of those boys took the field, along with other survivors, to play catch with Kershaw and LaRoche. "It was amazing to watch them come to life," Kershaw said. "To hear the horror they have lived through and to see their resilient spirit put everything in perspective."

Kershaw provided pitching tips in halting Spanish, but his message got through. "Baseball is a universal language here," he said. "It was awesome to see them just being kids and having fun."

Rain didn't deter the survivors, who ranged in age from 9 to 14, from a pickup game at Campo de Sueños. LaRoche hit fly balls to outfielders, and Kershaw shagged fouls and shouted encouragement.

On their last day in the country, the LaRoches and Kershaws visited Lily House, a home for victims of sexual exploitation and their children where survivors receive therapy and vocational training. "This whole trip, I've just been thinking about our kids back home and how they get to have a safe place to call home at night," Ellen Kershaw said. "It's pretty heart-wrenching to be over here and to just want to do that for everybody else."

"Cómo se dice 'hope' en Español?'" Kershaw asked the survivors. "Esperanza," they replied in unison.

LaRoche began working with IJM, which is based in Washington, when he played for the Nationals. "Today we got to hear the story of a survivor," Kershaw said. "To hear the one story helps you keep going. If it's one kid, then that's a big difference."