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Below is my interview with Camila as published in TODAY Magazine just over a year ago. I hope the charity, its clients and staff find a way through this difficult time.
In preparing to meet Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company I came across so many people who knew of her colourfully draped image without knowing her name or her role. It was a pleasure to meet with her in her beautifully decorated and homely office in London.
She heads up an innovative and effective organisation in Kids Company. For 17 years now she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of suffering children. When I asked her what these kids had in common she spoke of their “dignity being taken away by the circumstance into which they are born so they may not feel that they are worthy of the love and respect of others”. Her organisation works with these kids who have been failed and turns their lives around. The staff offer emotional, practical and educational support. So who is Camila and what does her organisation Kids Company do?
Camila was born into a very wealthy Iranian family and lived her early life very quietly. Her father was involved in politics and when the political climate in Iran changed she became a refugee in the UK. What I hadn’t realised before the interview was that her status is still classed as a refugee. In the current political climate it is noteworthy that this refugee has raised million of pounds for charity and has improved the lives of thousands of children through her various organisations. She has set up two children’s charities: A Place 2B and Kids Company. She and her team have raised in the region of £150 million! Currently she leads a team of 600 workers “sharing their beautiful souls with 36000 children, parents and young adults” across 10 centres and in over 40 schools in London and Bristol.
Among several awards Camila won the UK’s Woman of the Year award in 2006. In 2013 she was appointed as an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her work on behalf of underprivileged children in Britain. She also has an honorary doctorate from the Open University. An incredible achievement.
The other relevant fact about Camila is that she has dyslexia. An easy label that belies the character and effort it takes to persevere. Like many sufferers she was led to believe that she was not clever but with her early confidence in herself, she knew that this was not the case. Eventually dyslexia was the explanation. In truth this is why she remains a refugee because only recently have people been allowed administrative assistance to complete the nationality tests. Now it is just a matter of finding space in her packed diary to learn and pass the test. Such labels don’t bother Camila as she loves living in England and doing a job she is passionate about.
From a very early experience in boarding school in England, Camila felt moved to work with young people who were or seemed unloved. I was surprised and inspired that at such an early age she knew what she wanted to do and be. She did theatre and puppetry at university because she realised that “children would share with puppets what they would not share with an adult”.
Camila’s dedication, to these as yet unknown children, was so sincere that she decided she could not have her own children if she wanted to take on this role. With some humour she announced this to her friends so that they would know not to try to fix her up or distract her with their dating stories. She has no regrets and there is so much more she wants to get done so the challenge continues.
Who are the young people?
It is not always mentioned that Camila is a trained psychotherapist. With my experience of counselling teenagers I am inspired by the transformation she achieves with these young people. In some ways the reasons why they come to Camila’s attention are not new but there seems to be little in the present system that is geared to improving their life chances. Kids Company is a wraparound service and it is what these kids need otherwise they fall through the various organisations tasked with helping them. At Kids Company someone will really get to know all about their world and their experiences to date to be able to provide good mentoring and effect change.
These young people are likely to have experienced:
- Mental health difficulties
- Severe poverty, neglect or bereavement
- May have mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar, depression
- May have long-term or serious illnesses such as cancer
- May still be learning to meet their own needs and therefore not able to look after others
Much of what Kids Company does is intensive and reparative, and works alongside mentoring and in-school programs. With the support of the workers many of the young people go on to take up good training, university and employment opportunities.
What is incredible is that the conditions that give rise to this has not changed for decades but yet very little seems aimed at addressing those young people with these experiences. Camila continues to fundraise to do her work and without it such work will not be done. Kids Company has branches in many parts of the country, the most recent addition being Bristol. I found out that there had been some interest from Berkshire when Camila addressed a Head Teachers’ conference a couple years ago. It would be interesting to see if there is demand and support for this in the Thames Valley.
As well as working with the educational establishments Kids Company works with social services, mental health, the NHS and young offending teams to help sort out the chaos that exists in many of these kids’ lives. They have an initial battle to get the children to trust them, as these young people have already been failed by the adults their know. Before Kids Company can really begin working with a child they must ensure that she is safe at home. Only then can they begin deeper work with the child and support them in reclaiming their childhood rather than the tough exterior they have developed for self-protection. This is delicate, expert work that if not well-resourced or badly done can do more harm than good.
What effect does such early experiences have on these young people?
Camila quotes a study published by the London School of Economics last September. This analysed the work of Kids Company and explored its interventions. The report identified that a significant portion of Kids Company’s clients had witnessed or experienced violence of a traumatic nature such as stabbings and shootings! Others had been threatened or robbed and they considered the journey to and from school to be dangerous. Such trauma and violence may then affect their mental health. Camila shared that many of the young people she comes across believe they are soldiers fighting for survival in our cities. Part of the work is to begin to undo the negative impact all these early experiences have had on the young person’s brain development.
Looking after her staff
The staff can access psychotherapy, counselling and alternative therapies to help them take care of themselves. The work is challenging and could be draining so it is great for them to feel nurtured and valued.
I found the offices so attractive and all the staff so knowledgeable on what they were doing that they almost had to throw me out. The offices are colourful and expressive with graffiti like art in the corridors and dramatic installations on the ground floor. There was also a fantastic exhibit where the young people depicted their lives before and after their engagement with Kids Company. The kids were very honest and portrayed moving scenes of sleeping rough in parks and laundrettes; being hungry; sleeping on the floor; hanging out in pubs for hours on end and living in very cramped conditions. One of the kids depicted a scene where she was out in the cold before being rescued by Camila as if caught in a (safety) net. This was all part of Kids Company’s shoebox campaign involving 125 school children.
Last year they produced an art exhibition in partnership with the Royal Academy that was described as “incredible” by Damien Hirst and given a five-star rating by the Daily Telegraph. Through art, poetry, fashion and gardening young people are given the opportunity to find their passions and take these to the next level.
What’s next for Camila and Kids Company?
Camila and the team continue to have big plans for Kids Company as they see a great need for its services. The aim is to raise more funds to expand the nature of the work: more clients in more locations.
Kids Company works with many different companies and individuals to achieve its goals. There is a recent collaboration with the London Evening Standard where they are funding an initiative to help former gang members set up social enterprises.
The charity has created a professional development certificate in therapeutic communication skills for work with children. This has been developed in collaboration with The London Metropolitan University and serves to increase the supply of people skilled in this work.
Kids Company is supporting former clients to come together and make a difference in the way vulnerable children are dealt with. The group, known as Urban Wisdom, has already found themselves working with the children’s commissioner on gangs. It is hoped that their experience will make them credible with those setting policy.
Recently the artist Damien Hirst auctioned one of his Mickey Mouse paintings (drawn as one of his iconic spot paintings) and gave the proceeds to Kids Company.
Looking after body and soul
Camila speaks of having a childlike way about her where she is fully engaged in something but then able to leave it a moment later. Her ability to switch off easily helps her to make good use off her downtime. When she is not working she is able to relax easily. This is a perfect fit for this type of work and allows her to use her off time to replenish herself rather than worrying about her clients. She also “loves swimming and can do that for hours”. Swimming is very calming. I suspect she has some spiritual practice or faith but I am not able to confirm this. Her creativity with fabric and design would also be re-energising.
Her dyslexia means that she does not lose hours on the Internet. If it is not printed she cannot and does not read it. Think of all the hours saved not being online. Camila has long days, and often gets to bed at 1am. Her long days often end with the necessary fundraising events and she does this very well. Her main purpose though is not fundraising but doing the valuable work that she is passionate about. Yes she is a psychotherapist, an author and a philanthropist but most importantly I think she’ll say she is a Children’s Advocate.
There has been a lot of discussion around class in the U.K. this week. Although class has been less clearly delineated over recent years there is often a hint of its influence in various encounters, whether face-to-face or through the media. Historically people fitted into one of upper, middle or lower class groupings but this has all changed. A recent report has identified seven classes, all with various economic and cultural expectations. For myself I find that my cultural engagement is way ahead of my economic capital!
2 Established Middle Class
3.Technical Middle Class
4. New Affluent Workers
5. Emergent Service Workers
6. Traditional Working Class
For more information on the survey, the definitions and to complete your own survey check out this BBC link . What do you think? “Are you bothered?”
In June 2012 several members of parliament from all parties engaged in a discussion on mental health. Many were very open about their personal experiences living with challenges around mental health.
Today members approved a referral service and treatment fund of £25,000 per annum, enough to cover the equivalent of 1 counsellor. Referrals will be made by the already existing Parliamentary Safety Health and Wellbeing Service.
Mental health affects us all and it is good to see politicians in the House of Commons recognising their vulnerabilities. It takes courage to ask for help.
What do you think about this? Is there support in your workplace and are you able to ask for help?
I’ve noticed impatience creeping in in several areas and I wonder what that says about us. As a counsellor I need to be patient with my clients as developing trust or bringing about healing takes time – there is no cheat.
3 examples of our struggle with waiting:
- I enjoy listening to review shows and am pleased that they do give notice if they are about to reveal too much by signalling “spoiler alert”. Last week I was listening to a very reputable review show podcast where John Hamm of Mad Men was being interviewed. The whole point seemed to be to guess as much of the future of the show as possible. By the end of the interview I knew how many series might be ahead and what the ending screen shot might be. Try as I might I can’t now get this image out of my head. It was totally unnecessary. The interviewer was obviously not a fan and someone who had researched the series and probably feels they could write something similar.
- Sometimes even if we don’t seek the information before hand we might get it anyway. I am tired of hearing on the news that someone important is going to give a speech tomorrow and this is what will be said. When I have a vote to impact the future then let me know otherwise I can wait until tomorrow to find out. More recently we had that with the budget. (As it happened being given so much information beforehand meant that people were more alert to what had not been leaked). It does raise the question as to when we engage with what is going on: before it happens based on expectation or after it happens based on reality?
- My third example is the publication of the report looking into the causes of last summer’s riots. I was surprised to hear on BBC’s Newsnight that the report’s authors would not be joining the discussion because of their anger that it had been leaked. The panel was good enough but that did not seem to be the point. Here is a report that has taken so many months and effort to explore all the possible causes of a very unusual and sad incident and it’s been snatched out of those who did the work. It’s like designing, making and packaging a most original gift and having a stranger break open the wrapping and rummaging inside. It is such a difficult exercise anyway because many people do not wish to know what caused it they just don’t want it to happen again. We all have our preferred perspectives that blame individuals, families or society for problems. Wouldn’t it be great if we could demonstrate delaying gratification rather than a ‘must have it now’ approach? I hope the report is given the attention it deserves by all of us and look forward to hearing from the people who carried out the research.
A recent award nominee shared how angry she was when someone asked about her acceptance speech. She wanted to enjoy the glow and excitement of being nominated. I hope that more of us can develop an ability to wait and hold uncertainty. What do you think? Do you always want to know what is coming up or would you like to be surprised when things happen?
What lovely news to start this day! I was really hoping for a good ending. So many times we are fed bad news but we are all energised by this positive story of hope and achievement in the face of adversity. It’s an opportunity to celebrate pushing the bounds of human survival. We are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.
From their first 17 days it is a tale of leadership and sharing when their only food was a spoon of tuna every 48 hours. Lots of discipline and patience required so that they could collaborate for the good of all. They created their very own motivator, counsellor and spiritual leader to help them cope physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s about the love of and for their families, friends and country that created this energising supportive cycle. Of course there was also lots of hard work by highly skilled people who got the resources and political support they needed to carry out a top job. (Somewhere in here is also the turning point for health and safety in mines in Chile, if not across the world.)
But that is the story so far. It has all been miraculous and harmonious. Now we come in. How will we, through our media, start dividing the team as we offer different amounts of money to each depending on how interesting we find their story? I imagine we don’t have the appetite for 33 stories but maybe 5 or 10? How do we decide which human being is worth more? Is it the youngest? Oldest? Union rep.? The new father? Etc. It seems quite arbitrary and is a new game they need to figure out. Yes this is a real human interest story and not something manufactured in a big house or jungle stay, so we are naturally curious. But we could remember that they need space and time to recover from the trauma they have just experienced, and to rebuild relationships with their nearest and dearest. Can we celebrate with them on their terms or have we got this insatiable appetite for all their news that must be fed now?
So here we are. We have had an election and a very unusual outcome. People who were fighting each other a few weeks ago are now working together.
How does that make us feel? Are we pleased because it is the most sensible outcome given the voting results, and it attempts to include some of the best people from those available? Or are we angry and disappointed because our party of choice has either become powerless or compromised?
I do wonder if some of us simply enjoy conflict – we need to know who disagrees with us to know what we believe. Ideas are not always about good and evil or left and right. Some practices may have complex outcomes on a variety of deserving groups and this forces us to explore issues on a deeper level, rather than simply supporting whatever our individual parties propose.
Personally I am impressed by the new leaders’ willingness to take a risk for the national interest. Both personally and professionally they could gain a lot from this arrangement but they can also damage their parties and their political careers. They are tasked with keeping their own teams motivated whilst being able to trust and rely on each other. To achieve this they need great interpersonal skills, self awareness, judgment, flexibility amongst others. Critically they will also face criticism from their own teams, the cabinet and the country at large. As the previous administration found, it is no easy task to demonstrate confident strong leadership and be responsive to the range of interest groups who disagree with you. Any organisation or family probably knows this too.
So are we waiting to rub our hands and say ..”I knew it would never work…” , or can we be hopeful for the sake of the country? We could spend the next 5 years looking for points of disagreements and completely ignore where there is consensus. Is that how we are in our personal lives?
In some countries, both near and far, the hand over of power involves very undignified behaviour and sometimes violence. We have a lot to be to be grateful for. What is your view?
What a week! These guys have changed the face of history. They dared to believe they could achieve what had not been done before. They were told they were too young and had not been in their game long enough – needed to wait their turn.
Yet they possess great self-belief based on real ability. They were able to keep themselves going when others doubted them. With focus, determination, hard work and lots of talent they have won the race and secured a place for themselves in the history books. They could not have done it alone. Having demonstrated their gifts to those around them they have been supported by their own very loyal team; despite criticism from their peers and the opposition. Both have a strong family base to retreat to and be nourished by.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Winning is the first step, legacy is a whole different ball game. That requires delivering again and again. But it’s symbolic for all of us. When/If we’re made to feel different and out of place we can use that to motivate us to move forward, to dream big. Stepping out on a limb is scary but to fulfill your calling – that’s incredible! It gives us the audacity to hope for a better future for our world and to strive for excellence. Passion – calmly executed.