Denise adjusts her purple wig and gangster's dark glasses. She is 11, she is making a video, and she is loving every minute.

We are taking a break, over squash and biscuits, from rehearsals for her starring role in The Karate-Kicking Granny. In this gently moral, if unlikely tale, robbers break into a little old lady's house by mistake and get their just deserts when she turns out to be a martial arts expert.

Outside, the elements lash this remote Scottish farmhouse near the Ayrshire coast. Inside, Denise and about 20 other children are not letting the climate spoil their precious week away. This beautiful rambling farmhouse and its adjacent 250 acres of farmland and rolling hills are owned by the charity Kind, Kids in Need and Distress, which attempts to give children between five and 12 some relief from pressures at home.

They may have been on the receiving end of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, sex abuse or violence. Or they may simply have never been away from home before. Whatever their background, the point of their stay is to discover something positive about life, and about themselves.

Stephen Yip set up Kind in 1975, when he was 20, in his spare time from his job as a housing assistant for Merseyside County Council. Since then, Mr Yip has seen Kind grow from 30 children a year under tents in the Lake District to 2,000 children a year and a full-time job.

'Social workers are now asking us to take children with severe problems,' he says. 'But some children need constant one-to-one care, which we can't really offer.'

In most cases, the children are here to escape their families. Denise's family has a history of domestic violence and she has returned for the second year running, at the request of Dunfermline Womens' Aid.

Staff know only what they really need to know about the background of each new weekly intake. 'Otherwise', says Mr Yip, 'they will almost expect trouble.' However, staff will be told if a child is a bed-wetter, or needs medication. Male staff will be told if a girl is a rape victim, and they'll keep their distance unless the child invites them to do otherwise.

The staff can't judge by appearances why a child has been sent to them. There is the child who tumbles out of the weekly coach from Merseyside with a plastic bag, a towel, a toothbrush and a fine line in expletives; and then there is the child who is dropped off in a smart car with a nice suitcase and nice clothes. Who is most in need of help?

Each child is treated much like the others on this adventure holiday. Wellies and waterproofs line up near the back door for walks in the surrounding hills. Archery, rock-climbing and water sports, plus grooming, feeding and mucking out the farm's animals, make for a varied agenda.

Except that this isn't just any kids' adventure holiday. There is something more subtle, and deceptively simple, at work here. This is a disciplined environment, with simple routines. Children know when to get up and go to bed. They help out at mealtimes, and take responsibility for keeping their rooms tidy.

'Lots of our kids have no structure in their lives at all,' says Mr Yip. 'They eat when they want, they go to bed when they want and they get up when they want. Here, every child knows where they are in the structure of things. We're trying to teach basics like responsibility, co-operation and self-discipline.'

Social skills such as table manners are important. Children are actively encouraged to help prepare the day's menu, with every group cooking and baking at least once in the week. In the kitchen, as helpers and children toil to produce cheese and onion pasties for the dinner that evening, there is constructive, almost therapeutic, contact between adults and children. 'What are you doing when you're mixing ingredients in a bowl to make cakes or scones?' says Mr Yip. 'You're talking to them, aren't you?'

Denise, the karate-kicking granny, is asked about what else she's been up to. 'I'm going to be the champion baker,' says Denise, who is more talkative than the rest of her group. Outgoing or not, everyone gets some sort of award - Best Baker, Best Archer, Best Rider - at the end of the week.

Andrew, nine, has enjoyed helping to make caramel tarts. Jane, 10, a delicate and bespectacled child whose voice is so quiet you need to bend to hear it, loved the horse riding. But it is impossible to get them to say more than a few words without intimidating them.

'Some of them don't have any sort of a relationship with an adult,' explains Mr Yip. 'Lots of kids are spoken to, but rarely talked with. Some of them just want a cuddle.' Usually, he says, they're acutely shy at the start of the week but 'full of it' by the end.

As he speaks, the tempting smell of gingerbread wafts from the kitchen. Getting the children to cook certainly fits with the centre's philosophy of giving them novel experiences to take back home. Ask them how much cooking they do at home and you are met, by and large, with blank stares and shakes of the head.

'We don't bother making our own stuff too much,' says Tony, aged 12. Only Denise is able to offer, tentatively: 'I sometimes help mum with her fruitcake.'

Many of these children, whose young, single mothers often have much more pressing things to worry about - such as making ends meet - have absolutely no idea where food comes from. 'We say we're going to make biscuits,' says Mr Yip. 'They say, why don't you just open a packet?'

There's a kitchen garden too, which is just starting to yield a steady supply of potatoes and carrots. The nearby farm is home to an assortment of pigs, goats, rabbits and ducks, plus a bad-tempered 23-year-old donkey called Jenny. Six hens have been liberated from a local battery farm.

'These kids don't always regard animals as living things,' says Mr Yip. 'They come in here with terrible stories about the way they usually treat them. It's only by being responsible for them that they respect them.'

A 'proper' Sunday dinner, with roast chicken and all the trimmings, used to be the highlight of Kind's weekly menu. The children would spend six days feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs, and on the seventh sit down to find a chicken on their plates. Suspicious looks would be exchanged.

Now all the food is vegetarian, and it doesn't come cheap. The centre spends around pounds 650 a week on food, with an average of 30 mouths to feed three times a day.

Kind costs more than pounds 250,000 a year to run, and there is an outstanding bank loan of pounds 170,000, which went towards buying and renovating the farmhouse.

Money is a problem now more than at any other time in the centre's history. The recession has hit individual small business donations. Potential donors may make false judgements on appearances. 'When you see a girl on a pony, wearing a hard hat, naturally you think, 'What's wrong with her?' The kids look just like your kids or my kids. It's not until you look at the case notes that you find they aren't,' says Mr Yip.

But Kind's money problems could be a blessing in disguise. It may be forced to take drastically fewer children, but for longer periods, say 10 for two months at a time, helping to bring about more far-reaching change in a child's life.

So what, for the moment, can seven days at the centre really achieve? Kind deliberately takes younger children, because it is felt that there is a better chance to make an impression at that age. Mr Yip readily admits that he can't solve the major problems that dominate their lives. His objectives are modest; it's the 'small victories' that interest him.

What sort of small victories? 'Small victories for the child who comes off the bus spitting and swearing and goes back saying please and thank you.

'I'm not saying this kind of life is necessarily better. I'm saying that we are a success if we can give them at least some happy memories of childhood.'

The children's names in this article have been changed.

Kind can be contacted at 2b Maryland Street, Liverpool L2 9DE.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments