When former TV presenter Sarah de Carvalho responded to God’s call to live and work in a Brazilian shanty town, she discovered a dark world far removed from her own. The founder of the charity Happy Child tells MANDY PILZ why she risks her life to help others
"Gunshots suddenly rang out. A single bullet whistled over our house and a machine gun retaliated. The four of us threw ourselves onto the mud floor. I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to die,’ and an ice-cold terror ran through me.
“After that I wanted to leave because I was too scared to continue. Then someone reminded me of the Bible verse: ‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it’.
“I realised I was prepared to die, and that moment the fear left me and I felt I had an authority that wasn’t my own. This was it; total conviction. I knew I was called.”
Passionate and dedicated to her calling, facing the possibility of death in a Brazilian shanty town which she called home – it could not have been more removed from her former life as a successful TV producer, enjoying a glamorous career working for the BBC and Sky Television. I wanted to know what had caused this transformation.
“At age 28 I started questioning things in my life,” she explains. “I had all I wanted but wondered why I wasn’t fulfilled. One day I reluctantly agreed to go to church. The preacher spoke about Jesus’ death and I began to weep tears of relief. I felt I’d found the missing link.”
Two years later Sarah responded to a challenge to get involved in mission.
“Instantly the word ‘Brazil’ came to me,” she recalls. “I had a vision of the Pied Piper being followed by a group of bedraggled children. I then heard street children were being murdered in Brazil and reasoned that if God was calling me I had to respond.
“I arrived in Brazil in 1991 and lived in Borel, a shanty town which was the main hub for drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro with lots of gang warfare.”
Working in a team, Sarah befriended many street children. “The children went to the streets to beg for money to buy food. Often they wouldn’t go home because there was no love, no food, so they would join a street gang.
“We visited an area behind the train station, a vast underworld of shacks, prostitutes and street children. It was filthy and smelt terrible.
“The children’s heads were shaved; they were sniffing glue, they had scars. They loved it when we chatted to them, telling them they were precious and made in God’s image.
“I knew after my first year I couldn’t leave; I had to try to make a difference, but the needs were so overwhelming that some kind of structure was needed, and that was the beginning of Happy Child in Brazil’s third largest city Belo Horizonte.”
Beginning in 1993 with a 24-hour shelter, the organisation has expanded to include a farm, eight homes, children’s holiday camps and aftercare. Following a model of rescue, restoration and rehabilitation, Happy Child has saved over 7,000 children since it was founded.
One is Derson who was eight when he ran away to the streets. “ He came to the farm,” recalls Sarah, “and finally was able to return to his mother.
“When I saw him last year he was happily married, employed, leading worship at his church and playing four instruments! Others have become lawyers, teachers, craftsmen etc. Many have done well but a few haven’t.”
Happy Child is set to expand even further, to North East Brazil, which, according to reports, is now the international hub for child sex tourism. “Girls as young as nine are prostituting themselves and many are pregnant by age 12,” says Sarah. “We are also set to expand the work to Angola and Mozambique.”
Reflecting on her experience Sarah says: “It has been costly, but God is faithful. I have a wonderful family and a great team.
“I’ve learnt the greatest thing you can do in life is give. When I’m on my deathbed I want to know my life has made a difference; and that’s something money can’t buy.”
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