How this Bamber Bridge church is helping children living in the world's seventh most dangerous city
It broke her heart to hear of parents forced to leave their children home alone in one of the world's top 10 cities for homicide.
This devastating decision faced daily my many Brazilian parents living in poverty has inspired a mum-of-three to take a team of Bamber Bridge volunteers to the impoverished and drug-riddled city of Fortaleza later this month.
Michele Carter, senior pastor of Valley Church in Fourfields, will fly over for eight days with her team to meet the youths they have sponsored through charity Compassion and bless them with gifts.
Compassion is an international charity that helps some of the nearly 385 million children living in poverty around the world. It partners with local churches in 25 developing countries and uses donations to put children on a life-changing project that takes place before and after school.
Michele said: "These children are just as precious and loved as mine but their parents have to work long hours in poorly paid jobs just to scrape together enough money to buy food. Many pupils in Brazil only go to school in the morning or afternoon so even little ones are left at home alone.
"For them, the charity's support is the difference between ending up in prison after working on the streets, or going to university or learning practical skills like sewing to get a better-paid job.
"Brazil is a country that is changing and good jobs are available if you can get an education. But if you can't, then you'll need to supplement a low income."
Approximately three million Brazilian boys and girls aged 10 to 17 years are victims of child labour, despite it being illegal. For many families, it’s become normal for youngsters to work.
That's why Compassion is helping more than 51,330 youths escape poverty by offering pre and post-natal care, nutritional support, vaccinations and a safe place to play, as well as training for mums.
Activities on the project include prayers, Bible stories, break and snack time, health and social lessons, letter writing and career planning. The charity also empowers children to take part in skill workshops and extracurricular activities.
Michele and her husband Ed, also a senior pastor, were so moved by what they heard about the charity's work at several church conferences, they decided to sponsor a child.
The Goosnargh mum said: "Something sat right with us in our hearts and we thought it was absolutely amazing. Fortaleza is one of the places in the world known for child prostitution. I heard about these boys and girls and thought, 'who's going to help them?'"
After receiving letters from their first child, they decided to help more, and today they sponsor 19-year-old David, Wesley (17), Yasmin (12), and Gabriel (also 12). Since the Valley team began its work, more than 125 children have been sponsored by families and individuals through the church and its conferences in Fortaleza.
"It was absolutely amazing to receive that first letter and it's incredible being involved in someone's life on the other side of the world," Michele said.
One of Brazil's biggest cities, Fortaleza is a mecca for both national and international tourists and an economic magnet for people from the Brazilian state of Ceará. It is celebrated for its beaches, rolling dunes and atmospheric nightlife.
But underneath this glittering veneer is a dark underworld of crime, murder and poverty. Fortaleza is the seventh most dangerous city in the world, with a homicide rate of 83.48 per 100,000, according to Worldatlas.com
Michele discovered the dangers for herself when her team first visited the area in 2013 and met a boy whose sister had been shot in a drugs-related incident. Police escorted the volunteers during one of the visits and they were warned not to take any valuables in case they were targeted by criminals.
She said: "It was scary and made you realise where you were."
The trip is so potentially dangerous, the team cannot reveal the date they flight out due to security reasons. But for Michele, the risk is worth it.
"There's something really special about meeting someone's mum who couldn't look after them alone," she said.
"It's very moving and reminds you that each child is someone's son, daughter, brother or sister.
"I think it's such a privilege that we can be involved in people's lives and help make a difference. If my children were in that position and someone did it for me, it would be such a gift.
"Their home life is so different to ours - they sometimes sleep a few to a room, some in hammocks, and one girl had just a hose pipe outside as a shower.
"We live in safe, sealed houses but these children are open to the environment. They're so vulnerable because people could do anything to them."
But over the years, the church has seen the children they sponsor begin to flourish.
"Our sponsored kids are just like children anywhere in the world - they're happy even when they don't have anything," Michele said.
"They didn’t look confident in their younger photos. Vulnerable is the only word that really described them. They looked hopeless.
"But they transform over time and two years later they're looking up with open faces."
Yasmin is now taking ballet classes while 19-year-old David is studying law.
"Yasmin was just going to school and coming home. Many children don't see the point in school so they stop going and end up in a life of drugs and guns. But when they're placed in the project they're with people who can spend time with them," Michele said.
"We saw a girl who had witnessed a family member being shot. She didn't speak for months. But we were told she had spoken when we were last over there. It makes you feel so emotional because you can't comprehend that this is their reality."
And the positive changes are having a rippling effect on the youngsters' community, with Michele adding: "Some of the people who've come through the Compassion project are now teaching classes to other children.
"It's amazing because they could’ve just as easily ended up dead without the charity's support."
For more information, please visit https://www.compassionuk.org/