At the age of seven, Joelma was fending for herself on the streets of Rio de Janeiro — her parents in the Santa Cruz favela where she was born could no longer support her. She witnessed rapes and abuse, drugs were rife, she begged for food and had her first baby while still a street child herself.
Today, at 27, she's telling me her story as she braids hair in a brightly coloured salon in the centre of the city. Her life has been turned around by Associação Excola (Ex-Glue Sniffers Association), an organisation that works with women and children living on the streets, helping young mums learn new skills to enable them to keep their kids safe. 'It's dangerous on the streets,' says Joelma. 'Lots of young girls go into prostitution to buy crack. I got off the streets because of Excola. I earn my own money doing hairdressing and manicures, and help teach the kids that come to the centre too.'
In 2010, British Airways launched Flying Start, a charity partnership with Comic Relief UK, and I'm in Rio to visit some of the projects they fund — including Excola — and see the difference their work makes firsthand. As we walk around Lapa, the oldest part of the city, Excola founder Toni Montiero talks of the hardships of the streets.
'Thousands of people sleep on the streets in Rio. They often come in from favelas outside the city where there's real poverty, drug problems and violence, and use the streets for survival during the week. We work with them, particularly young mothers and their babies, helping them to get off the streets and access the support they need. The money we receive from Comic Relief will make a huge difference to us.'