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01 November 2013

Breaking the chains of young offenders in Brazil

Breaking the chains of young offenders in Brazil

How did successful dancer and performer, more at home on a grand stage, find herself preferring to spend her days in youth prisons in Sao Paulo? Lucy Cooper finds out that Cally Magalhaes is never afraid of a challenge..

"Where's my favourite place in the world? I can honestly say it is the youth prisons," says Cally. "When I walk in I feel like my heart wants to burst.

"In Brazil, Cally and George Magalhaes work with young offenders who have ended up in some of Sao Paulo's 132 youth prisons after committing serious crimes. Realising the huge need, the couple get alongside the boys they have come to know and love through psychodrama sessions, coaching,mentoring and family counselling. 

"There were nine people murdered in my first week."

A world away from Cally's days as an aspiring performer growing up in a non-Christian family, she never thought she'd end up here.

"From the age of 11, I dreamed of dancing in the West End. I was gutted when the doctor advised me to give it up due to spine scoliosis and I only agreed to rest because I got glandular fever," recalls Cally."Later, my brief marriage had ended and my life fell apart. I was an actress but so unhappy. Yet, I kept bumping into people from New Life church and eventually gave in by accepting an invitation.

"I remember handing over my life to Jesus,saying: 'If you are real then I cannot live any less than 100 per cent for you. I'm not going to be a 'sit-in-a-pew-on-a-Sunday Christian'.

"One day I sat in my bedroom in Milton Keynes reading a magazine article about street kids in Sao Paulo and it hit me. I read how they were beaten and arrested by police and how they sleep under bridges and in the sewers, with many of them drowning in heavy rains. I started to cry and cry."

Determined, Cally left for Brazil in 1999 with a six-month visa; convinced she was leaving the UK for good. "I started working in a slum on my own. I helped kids back to their families and chatted to the children, helping them in any way they needed. I had never seen a dead body before but there were nine people murdered in my first week. However, somehow I did not fear."

Falling in love with George from Brazil – a man who shared her calling – Cally soon had a husband and partner in her mission to bring hope to the streets.

"Allowing kids to dream that life can be different is key. Some children dream of becoming doctors or firemen and I tell them it's possible. I use the example of the President of Brazil – he started life as a shoe-shine boy.

"Our prison work started when one boy,who used to call us mum and dad, was arrested. Staff began to ask us to visit others too – starting with petty thieves and moving onto serious criminals. They would ask what we were doing that caused such change. We had spoken about Jesus.

"There would be a tense atmosphere and George would go into the courtyard, like Daniel in the lion's den. He would join hands with 50 boys, praying with them for peace and everything changed. An evangelist's dream."

Excitedly, Cally discovered that she could involve her passion for drama by introducing psychodrama therapy into a project in a serious re-offender unit.

"These guys have been in and out since they were 12 but we run small groups doing psychodrama therapy workshops for three months as they prepare for release. They re-enact crimes, role play and improvise as both the criminal and victim – giving voice and feeling to the victim. George and his team then talk about Jesus and help them reflect on the sessions."

When boys leave, there is risk of re-offending but the teenagers and their families have contact with Cally and George for up to two years after their release, getting help with life skills, education and employment. 

Six out of 10 do not re-offend, which is encouraging success. Many being released are finding employment and getting married. There are disappointing moments too though, Cally says. "You think they have come through and then they run away or steal from you – gutting. But five years later one text said: 'I'm sorry I let you down, I'm doing well, I am now the youth leader in our church.' Wow.

"We can't make the boys change, but God does exciting work. It is impossible for one person to change the world but you can change the world for one person."

Cally is one of Alliance member Tearfund's inspired individuals
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