Volume 17 Number 4
Keeping Kids Company
01 August 2004

‘You can be a child living with a family member and still be completely alone.’ This conviction is what drove Camila Batmanghelidjh to set up the charity Kids Company's therapy centre under a pair of derelict railway arches on a deprived south London estate near Brixton eight years ago.

‘WHAT’S UNIQUE about Kids Company,’ founder Camila Batmanghelidjh tells me, ‘is that it recognizes the reality of lone children. You can be a child living with a family member and still be completely alone.’ This conviction is what drove her to set up the charity’s therapy centre under a pair of derelict railway arches on a deprived south London estate near Brixton eight years ago. They have since moved premises, but a dedicated staff continues to provide a ‘comprehensive package of care’ to over 500 children a year, including helping with homework, providing meals, taking the children to doctors’ appointments and above all offering the love, understanding, and support that these children lack at home. Kids Company also works in 15 inner-city schools offering therapeutic support to some 4,000 children.

Crucially, the centre works on a selfreferral basis, allowing the children to access the help they need directly, without relying on their parents to take them to appointments. There are a staggering 1,500 children in the area registered as youth offenders and a further 200 are registered by Social Services as ‘at risk’. Kids Company believes these figures should be the other way around and focuses on preventing children turning to crime. ‘These children are brutalized from an early age,’ explains Batmanghelidjh, ‘They’re exposed to extreme amounts of violence and neglect and over a prolonged period they lose their capacity to feel.’

Batmanghelidjh’s dedication to the neglected children of south London is even more remarkable considering her background. Born in Iran to a very wealthy family, she received round the clock protection by police drivers before coming to England as a 12-year-old to attend a boarding school in Dorset. ‘It would be very easy for them to dismiss me or see me as completely out of their orbit,’ she admits, ‘but if you meet people on a genuinely emotional level then the economic barriers get removed.’

One experience that gave her more insight into the children’s lives was her father’s disappearance during the Iranian revolution, leaving her alone in England with no money, family, or any of her former status. This experience has been invaluable in her work at Kids Company.

After being granted political asylum in the UK Batmanghelidjh went on to university to study psychology, and qualified as a psychotherapist 15 years ago. Once on the inside of the profession she soon became concerned about the availability and accessibility of psychological services. The cost of training is prohibitive so there are few practising professionals, which in turn keeps the cost of treatment high.

Figures released by the UK government claiming that at least a quarter of children fail to fulfil their potential ‘due to clinically identifiable behavioural problems’ make it clear there is a need for better services.

Batmanghelidjh set up her first charity, The Place to Be (now known as P2B), in her early twenties, re-mortgaging her house to raise funds. The primary aim of this charity is the same as that of Kids Company—to provide children with services in their own environment that they can access themselves. P2B sets up teams of volunteers trained in counselling young people and led by a qualified psychotherapist, and places them in inner-city schools where the children can be referred for appointments by teachers, parents, or even themselves. The charity was commended for its work by the Department of Health and now operates in 74 schools all over England.

Batmanghelidjh knew she wanted to work with children from a very early age and strongly believes that she is following her vocation in her work at Kids Company. But surely she must wonder what it would have been like to have a private practice commanding hundreds of pounds an hour? She thinks before answering, ‘It was predetermined. I didn’t have a choice. But there’s not one day I woke up and didn’t want to go to work.’ This is more than most people can say and Batmanghelidjh’s reward is her relationships with the children, ‘I feel spiritually very rich,’ she says, and again, this is more than most can say.
Sarah Calkin

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