Thursday, December 31, 2009

Acampamento das Famílias 2009

Before the year is up I thought I might post a few pictures from the Acampamento we had a few weeks ago. It was great to finally have the opportunity to meet the "missing link" in these children's complex lives. Usually the only family that makes the effort to come to the camp are aunts or uncles, but the kids always have a great time.



the only father who came - but what a great dad!

his three sons

G and his family were there

S' mother, brother and two sisters were there. Three of the four children have been in and out of homes all their lives.

S' two sisters

brothers and arms


Last month I went to church on a tractor with some recovering alcoholics and drugs addicts. This month I enjoyed a Christmas dinner with a room full of children, some of whom are thieves, drug abusers and child prostitutes. But what a privilege it is to work amongst them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Random Observations #6

Haven't been so physically (and mentally) exhausted at Christmas since 230 Park.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Insensitivities

Much preparation here for the annual Acampamento das Famílias (when we invite the families of our kids present and past to a weekend camp in the country). This will be my first, and judging by previous years' offerings it promises to be a lot of fun.

I have been assembling a presentation for Saturday evening. It's a collection of my photos, interspersed with individual messages of thanks from each of the boys. I joked with W that he must first (and always) thank his mum, then God, and then The Academy.

He didn't laugh. He didn't even raise his eyebrows. He just left the room. W was abandoned at a very young age by both his mum and his dad.

My insensitivity sometimes exceeds my stupidity.
At times, the two collide.

The proximity of death

Q: Do you struggle with the proximity of death, about how little time we all have?

A: I'm fascinated by the brevity of life and how people use their time, because we all know that the axe will fall. It's inevitable - as you and I sitting here now - that the Tuesday will arrive when you, Kirsty, are not here. Nobody can reach you by telephone. Nobody can write to you and nobody can email you. You just won't be here. So, we all know this fact. With that in the forefront of our mind - in everything we do - I find it fascinating how people spend their time.

Morrissey, Desert Island Discs (4 December, 2009)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Casa de Recuperação

Yesterday I went to church on the back of a tractor with six recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. I accepted my good friend Berto's offer to take the weekend off and travel three hours out of the city and into the depths of the countryside or “interior”. I love the way the locals describe the city as “centro” and the rest of the huge state simply as the interior.

You may remember Berto from here or here. My age - give or take a few months. He's what you might call an overcomer. He's overcome depression and addiction to crack cocaine. He is one of the most joy-filled people I have ever known.


Health & Safety look away now

The facility, established by my Irish missionary friend Glen, can take up to 20 men who are struggling with addiction. Many come directly from the streets and vary in age from 18 to 70. All of them want desperately to be well. They live full time at the house for a minimum of 9 months (symbolic of rebirth) and work the extensive surrounding land. After cleaning-up, each has the opportunity to join Glen's construction team, which in turn (and rather neatly) works primarily with projects like Casa Elohim.

not looking to the left or to the right, just forward

On the first day we took a tour of the grounds on said tractor and I had my first experience of driving it up and down the muddy lanes. Incredible fun, but I managed to fluff a gear change at a rather critical moment (the top of a steep hill) - knocking it from nice steady first to crazy neutral and sending the tractor careering out of control, with Berto unable to reach the controls because I was in the way. When we reached an abrupt halt at the base of the hill, I could hear the blood racing through my head. Shaken, and only a little stirred.

Donna Maria - at a spritely 85 years - has been like a mother to many of the men who have passed through the doors of the Rehabilitation House. We dropped by to see her and her sons in the impossibly small but incredibly cozy collection of rooms they call home.

Donna Maria and her sons

Friday, November 20, 2009

A better day

W cracks a joke

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Babies, Bankruptcies and Bereavements

Broadcasting House
BBC Radio 4, Sunday 15th November, 2009.

Nearly 70 years ago, psychologists at Harvard University began a study which has become one of the longest and most comprehensive scientific studies ever undertaken: The Grant Study. They sought an answer to the perennial question about what makes people happy. In a blow to those sharing last week's £90m lottery win, the answer is not to "wait for fate".

Through it all: the battles survived, the babies born, the bankruptcies and the bereavements, the researchers have doggedly followed the Grant subjects. And their conclusion? Paraphrasing 68 years of work here...but essentially, being rich doesn't make you happy. Being nice, does.

"What makes people feel joy. What makes people feel glad that they lived their life, has to do with their relationships." Professor George Valiant is in charge of the study and therefore in charge of dispelling any lingering illusions that happiness is about pills and liquor...or sports cars and second homes. "Someone who has a fantastic naughty weekend is picking up the pieces all week. Whereas someone who has devoted themselves to other people - rather than happiness - when they are 80 has both a loving spouse and children and grandchildren who are fond of him. The way the brain is wired is that winning the lottery doesn't stimulate that part of the brain that heroin stimulates. Whereas attachment does."

The shelves of American bookshops are groaning with self-help books whose titles hint at the anxieties of this edgy nation. From How to Survive a Robot Uprising to Dog Sense: 99 relationship tips to get the most from your canine companion.

"The path to happiness is easy to identify, it's just hard to follow in real life. There's nothing more wonderful in time present than a great bottle of wine. The trouble is that once you've drunk the bottle, it's got no sticking power."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My week so far

this picture seems to perfectly encapsulate it

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Crack and The Favelas

A recent conversation has thrown some light on why we have had so much unwanted attention at the rescue house these past few weeks. Each person you speak to tends to have their own pet theory about the origin of the threats and (even more entertainingly) their suggested method of dealing with the problem. Recent suspects have ranged from mischievous kids (ladrinhos - "little thieves") to frustrated pimps (your average homeless prostitute wandering the marshlands behind the house is no Julia Roberts), depending on the level of paranoia of the person asked.

The rescue house has the appearance of a large family residence. It has a wide frontage and large automated gate - to the average thief (or humble, if nosy, neighbour) - an understandably attractive proposition. If only they knew the chaos behind those walls!

I have suggested "Kids Beware"-style signage. It would make a refreshing change to the "Beware of the Dog" posters which scream (bark?) from every frontage in the 'hood. Others have suggested a plaque proclaiming that we are an Association which helped children, but this has been poo-poo'd (IMHO, rightly so) since the concept of the rescue house is modelled on the family home - not some sort of society or orphanage (we do not want the children to believe that they have "special needs" or, contrarily, are in some sort of temporary utopia).

Recently, I have suspected (probably prejudicially) folk from the little favela (favelinha) which appears to have sprung-up at the bottom of the road. There's one man (a photo of which I will post at some later point) who is terribly nice, but there are others there who are not so friendly.

Yes, the postman does deliver if you paint a number on some wood

Although it's more of an illegal settlement than a full-blown favela, the dangers remain. It is widely known that living inside a favela is the safest place to be. The drug dealers control all aspects of habitation: everything from granting permission to live (rent or buy) to whether it is OK to start a Sunday school for the local children. They also decide which crimes can be committed and where. It is those that live just outside the favelas who face the greater risk of crime, since it is the police who control such areas (and around these parts at least, the police don't count for much).

In any event, the recent discussion that took place centred on the marshlands backing on to the vegetable patch. The supply of crack has recently dried-up in the neighbouring favela, so the junkies have been visiting the local dealers who have set up camp (together with the aforementioned prostitutes) in the largely uninhabitable area out back. This explains the recent spate of murders, armed robberies, burglaries and sundry assaults in the locale. Addicts needing to finance their fix - at any cost.

they are out there...somewhere

That is why I am concerned - but not unduly alarmed - by the 'banging at the door'. A serious intruder would not be announcing his arrival. We've strengthened the lock on the back gate and added some barbed wire and a security light for now. Finances don't stretch so far as an electric fence (and my view is that this would attract even more unwelcome attention).

Bolts, locks or bright lights -- ultimately, we can trust in only one impenetrable refuge.

He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge.
Proverbs 14:26

Still Ill

d + v for last few days - I can't think why...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Random Observations #5

My 'to do' list remains totally undone.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Random Observations #4

Shopping das Telhas: the mall that never was (and never will be)

The wonders of skype

W meets my nephew, L

L: how old are you?
W: 13
L: Korrrrrr!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sign of the Times

I used to follow the Dow...

...now I watch the price of pastel

Last Night

I do not see what the current fascination is with the rescue house, but we had attempted "visitors" again last night.

I was woken at 5am by someone trying to break the back door down. It's a large metal affair which separates the grounds from the horta (vegetable garden) and makes a terrible racket when hit. After investigating, our uninvited guest had gone.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Saturday in the Park

I took some of the boys to Ibirapuera Park at the weekend



The Niemeyer structures make for excellent cycling...

...and photography!


Needs

I have so far restrained from encumbering my few (but precious!) readers with practical necessities here at Casa Elohim. Some very kind people have asked me in recent weeks what things are needed, though, and now seems as good a time as any and I thought it may be helpful to set them out out below (and, going forward, in a permanent - hopefully receding - column on the right of the screen):

Tupperware
Large Pyrex cooking dish
Durable plastic plates
Medium size plastic cups
Juicer
Non-stick frying pan
Shoes (aged 7-15)
Flip-Flops (aged 7-15)
Clothes (aged 7-15)
Trainers/Sneakers (aged 7-15)
School materials
Art materials
Kite materials
Note pads/pens, etc for the office
Footballs
Pillows
Sheets
Matress covers
Cartoon books
Pans
Knives
Chairs
Coffee Cups
Salt/pepper and sugar containers
Medication

We are entirely dependent on voluntary donations and receive nothing from state or other government organizations here in São Paulo.

That nothwithstanding, I never fail to be amazed by the generosity of family, friends and...complete strangers when it comes to this work. All I can say is... THANK YOU for your continuing support! By the grace of God, you are helping to change these young boys' lives.

We are now entering a new season at the rescue home and are gearing-up for taking in new children from the streets in the new year. It is a crucial time.

THANK YOU!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

L & S

L smashed S's face against a wall this week. He'd been provoking him for the last few weeks, but I hadn't seen this coming. Resorting to physical violence in addition to psychological mischief is - I suppose - a final cry for attention (and dominance) in the same vein as self-harming.

S is older (and bigger) than L, but he chose to take the hits to his nose, cheek and lips. There was already a lot of blood by the time W raised the alarm and they both looked a mess because when S finally gave in (and pinned L to the ground) he stood over his face, bleeding.

S is the most harmless creature you could imagine, but I think that is exactly what threatens L. He envies S's quiet (probably inaccurately construed as "stable") nature and his position in Phase 3 (L was relegated to Phase 2 after his latest expulsion from school).

L is at a crucial stage in his life. Not only is he entering adolescence (as if that isn't enough grief), but this week marked his first full year here. He remembered to the day. A childhood marked by relationships temporary and sporadic: abandonment before ten, followed by various four month stints in state-run homes. Is it any wonder that he is struggling to develop "normal" relationships with those around him?

I was due to look after the boys following the lunchtime incident, and I tried to ask L about his motivations. He behaved well and we had an enjoyable time together, until the moment he put his hand to my nose and said proudly "that's S' blood".

At the disciplinary meeting the following day, he showed no remorse. Back sharply arched in his customary way (it's a habit developed on the street) he refused to accept any responsibility, although it was clear from the testimony of observers that he was solely to blame. Staring at the floor, one of the team told him how much he was loved and reminded him a little about his past and how his mum had abandoned him. He nodded slowly, eyes red with the beginning of tears. "And who will never abandon you?" she asked him. "God will never abandon me" he said in a broken voice.

L hugged each of the team and he then apologized to S. He was given a discipline for the following week. Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Intruder

I woke just before five to see Stevie tangled in one of the goal nets outside my window. I sighed and then received a call on my phone. It was Daniel who lives upstairs, warning me not to leave the house.

Moments before, he'd heard a commotion in the grounds. Tango had been barking, but then stopped abruptly and it sounded like someone was beating him (he sleeps beneath my window, so evidently the ear plugs were in a little too tight). When Daniel looked out his window, he saw a large man wearing a mask creeping around the grounds. He said he'd called the police.

By the time I had grabbed my heavy-duty Maglite (we can't afford le creuset in the kitchen), the buzzer went and the police were here. I don't know if I was more shocked by their response time or my willingness to venture outside. In any event, before long they were searching the grounds film noir style - guns poised.

They didn't find anyone. He probably skipped over the back gate. I checked the boys' rooms just in case (I even checked the top bunk of the quadruple bunk bed we have in Phase 1). Nothing.

It now occurs to me that maybe the intruder tied up Stevie deliberately. But I don't like to dwell on these things.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Random Observations #3

Above the parrots today is a sound like that of a million mosquitoes on the horizon. Helicopters punctuate the din (ferrying VIPs, no doubt). It can only be grand prix season.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Random Observations #2

I sleep on the lower level of a bunk bed. Above my head as I sleep are the words, scrawled in biro: LOVE WITHOUT AN AGENDA.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Strange Fruit

My favorite berry has to be the jamelão (left). Very sweet when swollen and fully ripe, but with a subtle sourness that lingers. A bit like these (but in the opposite direction). We have a modest tree in the grounds. The berry to the right is a cereja, which has a taste which I can only describe as akin to eating a flower. Maybe it is a flower, come to think of it.

Editors note: the dead mosquito was not added for scale, it just keeled over in-shot)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Digging Ditches

More construction. New waste pipes are being laid at Casa Elohim and Glen and his team (who built Bruno and Caio's house) are on the job again - so you know it's going to be done properly. I am glad to get an opportunity to skip the gym and do some real manual work for a change. I simply don't know how these guys do it. The soil near the lake contains a lot of clay, making the soil seem twice as heavy than it is. Totally exhausting, but it should be done by the end of the week.

it started off looking curiously like a grave...

L helped out with the back-breaking work

is it art?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Random Observations #1

I saw a man snatch a piece of bread from a dog in the street this morning.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

W

I bumped into W yesterday. The team have known him for some time, but now he is a boy of 10 or 11 years. He's the one on the far left of the photo (taken on our first day of street hockey back in the autumn).

He lost half his left leg a few years ago while riding the tracks to the beach (the kids perilously cling to the cargo trains as they make their way to the port of Santos - the nearest praia). What is left is a messy stump, but he plays hockey with the rest of the kids, with a crutch and a lot of zeal.

He took a great interest in why I had been home and where my parents lived. In fact, he wouldn't stop going on and on about them. I never fail to be amazed how these kids long for a family. More than the independence of the streets. More than the drugs, even. I hope we see him on Tuesday.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the mosquitoes

with a problem like this, resistence is futile

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Disrupted Night

Gunshots outside the gates again. I can't find the courage to leave the house this time. It's more prolonged, more frenzied.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back to the House

An emotional return to Casa Elohim.

Mike and Heidi (the Swiss missionaries - or, rather, visionaries - whose love and persistence help keep the doors of the rescue house open) posted a Welcome Home sign on my door, accessorised appropriately with the Brazilian flag - the only national flag (I noticed recently) with an in-built joke: "Ordem e Progresso".

The changes that have taken place in my two month absence soon become apparent: the boys who have returned to their families, the adolescents who can hold down a job for long enough to afford a place of their own. It's a whole new dynamic. The pecking order has changed.

L was expelled from school. Again. With his background (on the street aged 10, culminating four years later in Crackland - a notorious part of the city, the name of which is somewhat self-explanatory), it's amazing his troubles in re-adjusting to "normal" society haven't been greater. In the past he has run away from numerous state institutions, not lasting more than four months in any of them. He has been at Elohim for almost a year now, and although I'd like to say that it's solely because the rescue house is not an institution, his time here has not been without episodic relapses.

I had always suspected the possibility that he may ask his friends to buy drugs at school and bring them back to the house (the schools here make Grange Hill look tame), but I was shocked to discover that not only was cocaine being used in school, but L and his mates knocked-off the local supermarket to fund their habit. The only reason why he isn't in jail now (where his friends are and where no doubt there is a veritable smorgasbord of drugs to choose from) is that he was just out of the camera angle of the security camera. Small blessings.

I am reminded constantly of the great responsibility that I have here, and how fickle life is within the walls of the house. One never knows how long the children are going to be here. When the hug you give a child will be the last opportunity, the last communication you have with them, before they move on to a very different (and, hopefully, better) life. A life within a family.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Home

It's good to be home

Saturday, July 18, 2009

GRU · LHR

No, I haven't succumbed to the temptation of mega-corporate sponsorship. IF ONLY!

Today I return to England to renew my visa, recharge my batteries and see family and friends.

I am incredibly excited (or, as the Americans say, psyched) to be going home and to have a much-needed break (I haven't had a weekend off in five months and I feel ground down).

I will continue to post when I can and will return to Casa Elohim very soon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

Saying Goodbye

G left this week. After three years at Casa Elohim he was reintegrated with his family. His is a turbulent story, but the most disturbing aspects of his family life have now subsided to such an extent to allow his return.

Forever mischievous, a perennial joker and never without drama was G. If his time here was marked by exhuberance and frivolity, his leaving couldn't have been more different. His mother arrived, he finished helping me with the washing-up...and he left. As I closed the front gate, W shouted "Tchau G!" from somewhere in the grounds. He didn't even collect together the few belongings he had.

I've never been good at saying goodbye. At work, I had a tendency to dodge leaving parties and tearful farewells - even with colleagues I was close to - preferring instead to share a word of encouragement in private. Here though, saying goodbye (or even goodnight) in any meaningful sense is very rare. I used to get offended at first, but now I have become accustomed to it, and have accepted it, not necessarily because omitting to say goodbye is socially (or morally) more acceptable than not saying hello but rather because a word of departure confirms the end of a person's presence. As if by saying goodbye you are colluding in that person's departure. In law, there is no contract until there is an offer and an acceptance. In life, these little guys have already experienced too many departures (fathers, mothers, homes) to want to accept any more.

Goodbye, G

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fatherless

S punched this out on my iPod today.
He had been asking me to translate and spell random words throughout the afternoon, but what he wrote in the end choked me up when I read it.

Go, fly your kite

Yesterday and today I took the boys to the lake to fly their kites. It's winter now (and the school holidays), so it's officially kite flying season.

we had to pass the old dog with the scary eye

I don't recall ever flying a kite in my life, but the sheer exhilaration one feels when launching the fragile device into the air and watching it saw effortlessly to dizzying heights helps explain the craze among the children here (the cost does too -- a typical model is just 15p).

no wind required!

If you're going to play a little rough, the kids coat the lines in glue mixed with ground glass to (literally) cut out the competition. The practice was recently made illegal in São Paulo (not for the kids, but for their parents/guardians - i.e. me!) due to motorcycle riders being garrotted by stray lines.

intense concentration from W

L - a well orchestrated performance

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I miss the beach

MJ (by S)

Children around the world are paying tribute to the King of Pop.



Some better than others.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Lunch

For an easy Sunday Lunch I heartily recommend Salin's Bar. Hands down the best rotisserie chicken in Zona Sul (and there is a lot of competition -- there are almost as many fried chicken places here as there are replacement tire shops). The friendly chicken clutching the telephone says it all. It can't wait to be skewered.

And while we're on the subject, I think they should be commended for not using a single exclamation mark in their publicity materials (despite the liberal use of explosive stars). I think they should work on the name though. It's a little...matter of fact. The best name for a fried chicken joint I've seen was in New York -- it was a chain of restaurants called Pluck You. There was a Pluck You on 9th Av just round the corner from my apartment and I remember seeing a Pluck You II in the East Village. I usually despise restaurants with "sequels", but I'll make an exception in this instance because of its sheer classiness.

I digress. Good chicken comes at a cost. Not the R$11 (£3) part. The trick with Salin's is to make sure that you are positioned in line so that the sunlight comes in the window behind the guy who's slicing and dicing your chicken. That way you can see without obstruction the direction of the phlegm discharged when he coughs, thus leaving you to choose which chicken you take home with wisdom and hygiene.

And when the sun doesn't shine? Best not to go.

Nicknames

It is nothing new to say that kids can be cruel.

Here, each of the boys, no matter how disturbed their background, is named (and shamed) by the others.

W is Baleia (whale), S is Cavalo (horse), L is Dumbo (after the elephant) etc. etc.

My given name? Cabeça de Ovo - very loosely translated as EGGHEAD.

I can't think why.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don't worry, the kids won't bite*

*but if they do, we're trained in release techniques!

On Tuesday afternoons we pack some drinks and snacks and head into the centre [of the centre], set up some goal posts under one of the bridges, (right in front of the Mayor's plush offices) and play hockey with the street kids.

Yesterday we had between 15 to 20 kids dropping by to hit a ball around for a couple of hours. Afterwards we share some cake and juice and - if circumstances allow - five minutes of what we believe in and why we are there.

Some kids come to kill time. Some to take a break from begging. Some just for a piece of cake. Sadly, I am now used to the sight of children (averaging 10-12 years old) taking breaks from the game to inhale some glue or smoke a cigarette. I wanted the initial shock of witnessing this - the kids often look no older than my nephews (their growth stunted by their mother's drug abuse while pregnant) - to remain, but how good the mind is at clothing such horrors with dull familiarity.

not quite favela foot, but getting there

I enjoy just hanging out with the kids, chewing the fat and passing the time. Joyce, Alexander, Wanderley, Kennedy, Carol... do these names mean anything to anyone? Does anyone know their stories? Are they even on a Government register somewhere? A birth? A death?

Some of the kids have already lived in multiple shelters, some of the girls have already had children and abandoned them. Others have lived on the streets for years, the product of fragmented (and often abusive) families. One of the kids we spoke to yesterday evening had hit the street that very same day.


The most recent figures indicate that there are between seven and eight million street children in Brazil. Working in and around Anhangabaú (I still have difficulty pronouncing the indigenous name retained for the very core of the old city) - watching the kids in their little ad hoc gatherings - in few places is it more self-evident that sin begets sin. It goes a little like this: Child abuse/neglect at home → children leave home (families divided) → drug addiction on street → older children sell drugs to younger children → child prostitution (to fuel drug addiction) → paedophiles/other predators → children become pregnant/abort their own children → children born on street placed in care.

This is the context of my work here in São Paulo.
These are the children I am called to work with.

"If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered."
Proverbs 21:13

Time to Go

No, not me...the facial fur!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stevie

At long last, Stevie has grown too big to fit through the gaps of his enclosure._Sleep, restored.