One man's fight to help Brazil's orphans

Thirty years ago Mick Pease worked in the coal mines of North Yorkshire. Now he is a child care pioneer in Brazil helping thousands of homeless and orphaned youngsters find families.

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 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-20s 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 couldn't cope with this Black Country singing!" he jokes.

Soon after, he travelled to Romania with a church group, working as an aid worker in the country torn apart by 15 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 25 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".

"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. They 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're still human"."

"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 recounts.

Then came a chance meeting with Tory peer, Baroness Cox, who happened to be touring the country.

"Go home, research a fostering project and do it," she told him, "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 computer screen, he had written "Caring for Separated Children in the Developing World," a paper aimed at introducing a previously unheard of concept to Brazil: fostering.

Nearly five years on, Mick 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 for Leeds City Council as a fostering and adoption officer.

To focus solely on developing the charity's work, Mick 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 childrens' home.

"That is nowhere near enough," he 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 enormous problems of poverty and abandonment. There are children on the streets as young as five. If they aren't a problem the authorities leave them.

"I'm essentially a facilitator, an advocator, a troubleshooter," 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 were poor. People were so negative about it. They said the judges would never allow it, that most people had such big families they wouldn’t take more children in."

Now, Mick has spoken at a conference organised by the National Association for Brazilian Magistrates for Children and Young People and produced a 20-minute video in Portuguese explaining fostering for them.

In March this year 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 slowly being culturally adapted," Mick 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."

Mick’s transformation from coalminer to childcare pioneer has been a dramatic.

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 t-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 your shoulder. I really admire them."

He admits to a dislike for "feijão e arroz," the national cuisine, but talks nostalgically about Palmeiras and Corinthians football clubs as well as the ad hoc "sucos" 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-coalminer 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.