Care for vulnerable inner city children
“You couldn’t get a more privileged background than mine,” Camila Batmanghelidjh laughs as she contrasts the first ten years of her life, as the child of a wealthy Iranian physician living in Tehran, with her current life: “Who’d have thought that the child who grew up with such wealth and two police body guards would end up in Peckham?”
She is founder and director of Kids Company, a charity which provides practical, emotional and educational support to 13,000 vulnerable inner-city children and young people each year. We are sitting in a strikingly creative office space; Camila and some of her clients have transformed the inside of the drab former government offices, which Kids Company have just taken over, into something which resembles a fairy godmother’s grotto. Camila, who looks like a fairy godmother draped in a long flowery gown and pink turban, has just asked me to cover my ears as she literally yells for someone from the other end of the floor to bring us some tea. “Quirky” is a word at the front of my mind.
As surprised as Camila is to find herself in a deprived part of South London, she has been keen to work with vulnerable children for a long time. Aged 9, Camila had already told her parents that she planned to run an orphanage and she was regularly entrusted by her teachers to entertain 70 to 90 primary school aged children: “I loved it and obviously I had a special talent.” Camila was also intrigued by how the mind worked and insisted that her mother joined the Child Development Society so that she could read the journals. This was not easy for a girl who was already becoming aware of her own global learning difficulty: “Reading was hard, directions too, stairs flatten out and even now, I can’t use a keyboard at all”. A love for children, psychology and an empathy for those who don’t fit in, provided the building blocks for Camila’s future career.
Age eleven Camila was sent to one of the UK’s top private schools for girls, Sherborne. Not long after arriving there, the news that her father had been imprisoned in the Iranian revolution turned her life upside down. Although family connections enabled her school fees to be covered, Camila started working with children during the holidays to earn extra cash. First she got a position as a nursery worker, but as her experience and knowledge of psychology increased, she built up a private practise for disturbed children of the very wealthy: “These were people who didn’t want their children to appear in anyone’s clinic. I used to go to their houses and problem solve, often using a suitcase full of art materials.” By the age of 19 she had a full practise, just through word of mouth. “I was very confident. I’d accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge over the years and because I came from an incredibly wealthy background, I wasn’t phased by the chandeliers. They could tell that their wealth or power wasn’t impressive”
Camila says that the issues faced by these children were similar to those of the deprived London children who she works with today: “It’s all about lack of maternal attachment.” Aged 25, when Camila became a part-time therapist at family services in South London, she realised that many of the children who she was trying to help didn’t have a functioning parent at all to bring them to appointments. So, she put together all her talents and experience to date to create a new model of care: “I decided to set up a therapeutic service for children within a school, that children can self refer to. So I cleaned up a broom cupboard in a primary school and called it the “Place to Be”.” Five years later, in 1995, Camila left the Place to Be, to set up Kids Company with a £20,000 grant from the local authority.
Kids Company aims to provide a nurturing home environment for children who are missing a functioning parent: “The way you do it is you put a collection of staff on a premises and let the children come when they like. Those who desperately need it will come seven days a week. You provide three meals a day. You have your doctor, your dentist, your psychiatric nurse, optician, youth worker, artists and sports workers. You don’t open and close files on children, you just get to know them. It’s a partnership with the parents and the centre where possible.” Kids Company operate variations of this model in 37 schools across London. They have a crisis centre for 2000 children and an Urban Academy for “two or three hundred really challenging students”. The Company has 336 paid staff and 5600 volunteers.
As with many charities, fund raising is a major task. They have to raise £10 million each year. Camila takes this in her stride: “When you’re a lifeline to so many children, you’d better show up and get on with it. If they can survive that amount of neglect then we better get on with the fund raising.”
In spite of all her experience, and her self evident success, it’s still hard to imagine this elaborately dressed woman relating to the street kids of Peckham. She’s realistic about the risks she faces: “When they first arrive, some of them are capable of great harm. You have to be realistic and know that they lose control very quickly.” She has a suitably unusual approach to “de-escalating” any tense situation: “I pinch their cheeks! I say ‘Do you really want to frighten me that much? Is that what you want me to think of you? To me you’re a really small boy with lots of painful feelings and I’m not scared of you.’”
Kids Company is very successful at what it does; At getting children back into education and reducing crime. But Camila sees the overall problem for deprived inner city children increasing: “Violence is spreading like a virus among disturbed children at street level and they are forcing otherwise well cared for children to become involved.” Kids Company has a vital role to play in alleviating the situation by helping violent children not to become violent parents: “It’s a cycle. No-one becomes violent randomly. It’s about giving people genuine tools to solve the problem so that there’s no violence any more.” Privileged background or not, Camila is using her drive, experience and personality to make a big impact in this area and I am thankful.