The big interview: Breaking slavery’s legacy

The big interview: Breaking slavery’s legacy
Sarah de Carvalho
01 October, 2013 5 min read

Sarah de Carvalho MBE, founder of Happy Child International, will soon celebrate 20 years of ministry.

Happy Child has rescued and restored over 9500 children from the streets and places of risk and reintegrated them back into family and community. Beginning with a 24-hour shelter in Belo Horizonte, in south east Brazil, the charity has expanded, with 10 additional safe homes in that city and, more recently, three homes in Recife, in the poorer north east of the country.

Sarah recently shared her story with Sheila Marshall.

Sheila: How were you called to work in Brazil?

Sarah: I was a publicist on film production and distribution and then worked for the BBC on shows like Top of the pops and the BAFTA awards.    
   I started to attend Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, and I felt very strongly I had to go to Brazil, but I didn’t know why.
   I was praying with a missionary from South America on a weekend away with my church. I had a picture in my mind of the Pied Piper and God’s leading, ‘You are the pied piper’.
   I went up to Lynn Green of Youth with a Mission (YWAM) and asked him if he knew about Brazil. He’d just come back from there. I asked if there were children on the streets and described my vision. He said, ‘Not only are there children, as you describe, but they’re being murdered’.
Sheila: What was it like to arrive in Brazil after your initial training with YWAM?

Sarah: One thing I said I wouldn’t do is live in a favela [shanty town]. But after three months of being in Brazil, the only place that I could live was in a favela.
   Children run away from their homes in favelas, and I thought, ‘How could someone like me, coming from my background and privileged childhood, ever relate to these children?’ So I lived in a favela in the Rio de Janeiro area, called Borel, with 40,000 inhabitants.        
   After slavery was abolished only 120 years ago, there were four million African slaves living in Brazil, with absolutely no infrastructure, schools or housing. They were pushed out of the cities and built their homes on the edges of the mountains. These are now the slums. The poorest of the poor are the descendants of those slaves.

Sheila: What was it like to live there?
Sarah: Living in a slum for over a year was an extraordinary experience. They are controlled and dominated by drug barons. So it’s common to see gang members walking around with machine guns. I often slept on the floor of my bedroom, because there were incredible shootings between the different gangs.

Sheila: What change did you want to see?    
Sarah: My heart broke for the children. There were shootings, and girls being brought up in this situation became the third or fourth generation of mums who never married or who had a string of different relationships.
   Very often, stepfathers abused these young girls and boys. They were often part of the gangs, because it was easy money. Children were on the streets because they were sent there or they were being abused at home. I began to go out into the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and started Happy Child in 1993 in the city of Belo Horizonte.

Sheila: What makes a happy child?

Sarah: To have a home where there’s love and stability. When we say we’re a Christian organisation, it means that we have a Christian conviction, with Jesus as our model.
   Everybody has the right to a loving home, to have his or her basic needs met and to have an education — to become what God intended.

Sheila: How did you connect with local Christians?

Sarah: We immediately worked with local people and with two local churches. We spent the first year praying. My dream was to take street children out into the countryside. We were lent a farm and another church lent us their basement.

Sheila: How were you received?

Sarah: Here was this tall, fair-skinned foreigner living where even they didn’t want to live. They couldn’t understand why I would want to be there, helping them. But I’ve always felt very accepted.
   I think, when you’re there with the love of God, you’re accepted in places that normally people wouldn’t accept you. Learning to speak their language helps as well.
   I felt strongly that we needed to have partnership from the local government. So, we got a partnership about three years in and were able to start opening more care homes.

Sheila: How has your original vision played out?

Sarah: The work in Belo Horizonte is now completely self-funded locally. We are now replicating this model in Recife, north-east Brazil.  We have a team of over 74 staff running different homes in Belo Horizonte and Recife. We have separate homes for teenage girls, teenage boys, siblings, young girls and boys.
   One hundred per cent go back to school within two years and 95 per cent go back and live with family.
   We have social workers and psychologists working with the families. The five per cent not able to go back to their family will either stay with us until they’re old enough to be independent and train or work, or the younger ones may be adopted.

Sheila: What Bible verse inspires you?

Sarah: There’s a proverb that says, ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves and the rights of all those who are destitute’.
   In 2007, I met a 16-year-old girl on the streets in Recife, in the northeast of Brazil. She already had two babies her mum was bringing up at home. She told me that her mum had sent her to the streets to prostitute at 11-years-old, because there was no food at home. Her clients were from different European countries.
   She said she could take me to places where pimps were prostituting girls as young as nine and ten to tourists from Europe.
   I thought it was outrageous. She looked at me: ‘Will you do something to help us, Sarah?’  I thought, Rose can’t speak up for herself, but I can speak up for her.

Sheila: Has any of your previous experience come in handy?

Sarah: One of my strengths from being in the media is communication and I’ve used that. I’m channelling all my experience in producing and PR for a cause where lives are changed. I feel campaigning can change legislation and bring awareness to stop wrong things happening in the first place.
    We do prevention work. Our campaign, It’s a penalty, will be launching in January 2014, addressing the issue of child sex tourism and trafficking, around the FIFA World Cup in 2014 in Brazil.

Sheila: What challenges have you faced?

Sarah: My passion is to be on the streets, but as the work grew I had to let go and step back. I have less contact with the children now, because I run the office we have in the UK and focus on getting funding, campaigning and expanding the work. It’s sacrificial and tough work. I don’t do what I do for money.
   Back in the UK, I am surrounded by many people who have a lot. I’m not envious, but I realize that’s all part of it. What I do have is the privilege of working with God and changing lives.

Sheila: What keeps you happy?

Sarah: I have a loving family and a tight circle of friends. Happy Child is what it is today because I work with a team. Some of my team have worked with me for 20 years. So, we’re a family and that’s great.

Sheila: How can ET readers support Happy Child?

Sarah: It would be fab if you would like to contribute to either the project working with girls in the north of Brazil or monthly running costs (click ‘donate now’ at You can also find out more from my book, The street children of Brazil, available from Amazon.

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