NEWSMAKER: Safe under Mamma's wings - Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder, Kids Company


Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh is affectionately known as "Big Mamma

or "Big C

by her kids at the drop-in centre she runs in Camberwell, south London.

She's like a surrogate mother to the 180 children that attend the centre, 58 per cent of whom are black adolescent boys. "This is the group that everyone finds it difficult to help. They come to me through word of mouth off the streets,

says Batmanghelidjh.

However, the centre, which the kids regard as their "second home,

is under threat from local complaints about the noise levels and has been refused retrospective planning permission by Southwark Council, which has been backed up by a government planning inspector (see Third Sector, 20 March).

But Batmanghelidjh is more determined than ever. She has taken the case to the High Court with the financial support of law firm SJ Berwin %26 Leighton and Railtrack's property division Spacia, which gives the charity £20,000 worth of rent-free premises at the Arches in Camberwell.

Ironically, while the charity and the Government battle it out in the courtroom, the two are, in fact, working together. For Batmanghelidjh may have the answer to helping deprived kids throughout the UK.

The Government has commissioned a report by the charity Crime Concern to look at the workings and impact of the services provided by Kids Company and how they might be replicated in other areas.

Batmanghelidjh and her team of 56 staff and around 95 volunteers have made the Arches, open seven days a week, a cheery place to be.

Along with its brightly coloured walls, painted by the care workers and kids, it has a small garden with a barbecue, a music studio, dining room, library, art centre and aromatherapy area, as well as teaching and counselling rooms.

She felt that the usual public-sector model of seeing children on an appointment basis doesn't suit very deprived inner-city children who come from very fragmented home environments including parents who are drug abusers.

Batmanghelidjh says: "You can see that they have no other option but to turn to crime, as they have no income, no stability and they turn to drugs to manage their emotions."

In most cases, the parents are not on hand to go with the child to separate agency appointments including health, social services, education and housing.

"A 14-year-old kid doesn't know how these agencies work, so they end up falling between services. Kids Company's got all the services under one roof. On top of this, we have activities that children want to join in with and learn from. This is what the Government is looking at - how the agencies can work together rather than a lot of power struggles."

At Kids Company, social workers will come and talk to the children in one of the cushioned counselling rooms and then return them to their play, which she says is more agreeable for the child.

They also have a key-worker at the centre, which looks after a child's general wellbeing.

Batmanghelidjh has introduced a points system to the centre: one point equals 50p, and the kids can build up money by doing general duties. Each child also receives a travel pass to stop them evading fares. The older kids receive £25 in food vouchers each week to buy their weekly shopping.

Along with such incentive schemes, each child has an adjustable learning timetable: as they become capable of achieving more, their targets are raised.

"We are working towards getting children back into education - we go at their pace."

The centre works closely with schools, providing volunteers to help out with things such as fixing the playground, as well as seeing children that need therapy.

Batmanghelidjh, who comes from a wealthy Iranian family, has decided not to have her own kids because of her in-depth work with children. Her life is dedicated to helping them keep off the streets, stay out of trouble and get back into education: "I've known since I was nine that I'd do this. I was born to get a job done rather than live my life."

As a child, Batmanghelidjh had learning difficulties herself. When she was nine she was granted political asylum in Switzerland, where she skied and did three hours of learning a day at a special-needs school.

Kids Company is not the first time she has helped children.

In her 20s, she set up The Place To Be, offering therapeutic support to children. She spoke at school assemblies to tell them she was there for them to talk to.

Kids Company has been funded by the Tudor Trust, the Henry Smith Foundation, the Camelot Foundation, and the Sainsbury's Charitable Trust. "Grant-giving trusts are the centre of innovation in this country. They really made Kids Company happen,

she says.

Both she and they can be proud of the centre's achievement: since September, Kids Company has managed to get 30 children back into schooling.

"We're like a family: the less they need us, the fewer days they come,

she says like a mother losing her kids to the big wide world.


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