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Compassion amid the violence of Rio’s slum

October 27th, 2009
Brazilian Flordelis dos Santos (centre) poses with some of her 50 children

Brazilian Flordelis dos Santos (centre) poses with some of her 50 children

In one of Rio’s notoriously violent slums, Floderlis has been putting her energy into building her family and giving it hope — in abundance.

Today, at age 48, she has 50 children, all but three of them adopted from the mean streets that spread throughout this city, plagued by drug trafficking and crime. They are aged from 35 years down to five months.

“I was raised in Jacarezinho slum. I saw terrible violence there. One day, I managed to save a teenager of 13 years who was going to be killed by traffickers. That gave me courage to continue. The teen came to live at my place,” Floderlis said.

The generous woman, looking a decade younger than her age, started to grow her family with adoptions when she was 27 and already a mother of her three biological children.

It started when she found a two-week-old baby in the trash at Rio’s main railway station.

“I brought the little girl home. I found her mother, who was living in the street, and made her come too. But she didn’t want to stay.”

After, her welcoming of strays snowballed. Each of her children brought with him or her a pitiful story.

Thanks to her unflagging care, her sons have escaped the grasp of drug trafficking and the girls have not turned to prostitution, both virtually the only means of survival for street kids.

“Most of the children in the streets are running away from violence at home, oftentimes sexual violence. When a kid is living in the street it’s because he’s being badly treated. He absolutely mustn’t be returned to his family. The law has to change,” affirmed Floderlis.

She sees the current laws on the problem as “archaic”, after having taken in a newborn baby with two broken legs but having to hand the child over to the father two years later — only to hear that he threw the baby from a window two weeks later because it cried too much.

“I felt guilty.”

One day in 1994 she brought in 37 children at once, including 14 babies. The eldest ones had come to her place and knocked on the door.

“At the time, the courts wanted to take the children away. They wanted to separate them to put them in orphanages. So I ran away,” she said.

She spent a night in the street, covering her charges with pages from newspapers, before taking refuge in another slum. A warrant for kidnapping was issued against her. When authorities found her, she ran away again.

Then she went to the media. The oldest children stood up to say they did not want to leave her, prompting a lawyer and a charity to lend their support.

When the judge came down in her favor — but only on condition she find a house outside the slum within one month — she went from being part of Rio’s marginalized class to a popular heroine.

“I felt relieved. But I was also angry. All that cost me a lot,” Floderlis said.

The charity, Instituto Crianca, is paying the rent for the big family.

The fame of the clan is soon to spread well beyond Rio to the rest of Brazil and the world through a fictionalized film of their story being made by Globo Television and to be shown at the United Nations.

In their home, Floderlis and her husband manage everything themselves. The oldest of their children help the younger ones in a sharing and caring environment.

One of the kids, Rayane, 15, does not hesitate when she calls Floderlis her mother.

“My mother took me in when I was 15 days old. She found the woman who gave birth to me. She had thrown me in a trash can, but I don’t hold a grudge. Today I’m a really happy teenager,” she said.

Floderlis, somehow, also finds time to give to people outside her family, starting an evangelical church in a poor neighborhood where she also sings Gospel.

One of her sons, Daniel, 11, learned to play the piano by watching the church’s pianist.

His renditions of “Love Story” and Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” could be the soundtrack of this very unusual family brought together by one woman’s compassion.

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