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Brazzil - Society - July 2003

Brazil: A Family for Each Street Kid

British Mick Pease is pushing the boundaries of childcare
in Brazil. Says he, "The childcare system in Brazil has
such enormous problems. There are children on the
streets as young as 5, 6 and 7. Fostering is no utopia but
it's far better than institutions with 50 or 100 kids."

Tom Phillips


There could hardly be two more different settings: a small coal-mining town in the north of England, and the sprawling favelas of São Paulo. Separated by thousands of miles, it's hard to see any logical connection. Yet for one former miner the locations are inextricably linked. Raised on a Knottingly council estate, Mick Pease left school at 16 to work in the mines. These days he is a childcare pioneer in Brazil.

"How do you get from one to the other?" he muses in a central Leeds pub, evidently unsure himself what has led him in this direction.

"I had no concept of social workers when I was a kid, growing up near Pontefract," he says.

His journey to Brazil has contained more twists and turns than any of Niemeyer's architecture. Having worked until his mid-twenties at Kellingley colliery, Mick moved south to Birmingham, where he later trained as a social worker during the early 1980s. Keen to avoid the Midlands accent that his children were picking up at school, he returned to the North four years later, to work in child protection in Leeds.

"Our children were coming home from school with this brummie accent, saying `it's ace' all the time, and I thought I could not cope with all this Black Country singing," he jokes.

Soon after he traveled to Romania with a Church group, working as an aid worker in the country torn apart by fifteen years under Ceausescu's communist rule.

"I suppose this was the beginning of my search to make an impact out there," he suggests. "Then I really made up my mind that I needed to do something, but I just didn't know what or where that might be."

From Eastern Europe to South America, Mick's next stop was Belo Horizonte. He arrived in the Mineiro capital in 1994, travelling with the missionary group Youth with a Mission (YWAM), to visit a project in the city's impoverished downtown.

"From that point I thought, I want to take a year out and let's see where it takes us."

In 1997 he returned to Brazil with Brenda, his wife of twenty five years. This time the British couple headed for São Paulo, where they were to spend a year caring for children and babies placed by the authorities in Casa Lar Novo Rumo (roughly translated as `a children's home [with] a new direction') a Paulista care home.

"I was prepared for the conditions that we saw in Brazil because of Romania. I remember the gypsy kids who we were giving stuff out to. Both the Romanians and the Hungarians hated the gypsies, thought they were scum and resented us for even giving them toothpaste. It was difficult; the kids were human beings like anyone else. `You might not like their mode of life,' I thought, `but they are still human beings'".

"It was the same in Brazil, with all these prejudices. You wanted to give money to every Tom, Dick and Harry; [the] mothers with babies knocking at the car window. [It's] terrible," he describes.

Then came a chance meeting with Tory peer Baroness Cox who was touring the country. "`Go home, research a fostering project and do it,' she said to me, `because Brazil needs fostering'". So the Yorkshire social worker returned to the UK and became what he calls "a laptop hermit". After a few months glued to his monitor he had written Caring for Separated Children in the Developing World, a paper aimed at introducing a previously unheard of concept to Brazil: fostering.

Foster Families

Nearly 5 years on, Pease is pushing the boundaries of childcare in the South American country. Having addressed conferences at universities in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Campinas, and met with some of the most influential Brazilians in the field, he founded his charity Substitute Families for Abandoned Children (SFAC) in 2002. In his `spare time' he works full-time for Leeds City Council as a fostering and adoption officer.

To focus solely on developing the charity's work, Pease says he needs to go full-time. But for this, SFAC needs greater financial backing. "We are really reliant on donations from businesses," he says. At present the charity sends about £1,500 to Brazil each month, around R$6,000, to support the work of Casa Lar children's home. That is nowhere near enough, Pease explains.

Ultimately the charity, which works in partnership with Casa Lar Novo Rumo project, intends to develop fostering throughout Brazil. "The childcare system in Brazil is totally different, with such enormous problems of poverty and abandoned children. There are children on the streets as young as 5, 6 and 7. If they aren't a problem the authorities leave them.

"I'm essentially a facilitator, an advocator, a trouble shooter," he explains in his crisp Yorkshire accent. "My role will be to train social workers and families, not just an ad hoc `let's place a child with a family' but offer a professional service. We want to work alongside the government and NGOs with abandoned children.

"Fostering is no utopia but it's far better than institutions with 50 or 100 kids. It's crucial the children learn about ordinary family life experiences, and don't become institutionalised."

"Five years ago the prospects for fostering in Brazil was poor. People were so negative about it. They said the judges would never allow it, that most people had such big families that they wouldn't take in children."

Now, Mick has spoken at a ABRAMINJ conference (National Association for Brazilian Magistrates for Children and Young people). He has also produced a 20 minute video in Portuguese explaining fostering.

In March, the city of São Paulo introduced a new law which says they must develop a fostering programme. "It's a western concept, from a western take, that is being culturally adapted. Things are changing fast," Pease says.

"It's scary but so satisfying," he continues, setting out his plans to extend the scheme to places as far afield as Mozambique, Kazakhstan, Armenia and even Nepal and China.

"This is not just Brazil, it's worldwide; an enormous project. From now until my last day on earth I'll work at it. And if anyone is interested I'll snap their hands off in order to push it forwards."

Pease's transformation from coal miner to childcare pioneer has been a dramatic one. He grins childishly at the very mention of "Brasssilll" and the nickname "gordão" (fatty) that he picked up in São Paulo, despite, at 50, cutting a trim figure. Leaning back in his very British surroundings, the combination of a body hugging Ben Sherman tee shirt, and his laid-back grin knocks years off his appearance.

"I love the vibrancy of Brazil, the attitude generally of being positive rather than walking around with a chip on their shoulders. I really admire them." He admits to a dislike for feijão e arroz (beans and rice), the national cuisine, but talks nostalgically about Palmeiras and Corinthians football clubs,  "the ad hoc sucos (juices)" and, of course, the coffee.

"It's like part of me," he explains, "I'm part Brazilian."

"How am I here? How have I got here?" The ex-coal miner puts it down to his Christian faith. And he's convinced of something else. "I'm not done yet. There are many miracles ahead," he says.

SFAC is a registered charity and can be found at www.sfac.org.uk  

Tom Phillips is a British student journalist who lived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, between 2000 and 2001. He is Features Editor of the Leeds Student newspaper and writes for a variety of publications on politics and current affairs, as well as various aspects of the cultura brasileira. Tom will be based in Rio de Janeiro starting August 2003. He can be reached on: tominrio@yahoo.co.uk   and his articles can also be found at: www.leedsstudent.org.uk

© Tom Phillips - July 2003





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