I'm the fat beggar': Kids Company's Camila Batmanghelidjh reveals why the fight for funds for vulnerable children never ends


Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Camila Batmanghelidjh requires the assistance of her PA, who sits some distance away, behind a closed door, she lets out a curious, high-pitched noise. It is not a particularly nice noise – you think, instinctively, of a dolphin in peril – but it is effective. She does it twice while I'm in her company, and both times her dutiful PA comes running.

To say that Batmanghelidjh is larger than life is a little like saying that her organisation, Kids Company, is just another charity. Each is as remarkable, and awe-inspiring, as the other. Here is a riotously colourful woman, who has forsaken a private life (at 50, she remains unmarried and childless) to help some of the country's most vulnerable children survive, and, in many cases thrive, in a fashion that this or any other government can only sit back and admire, but not, seemingly, replicate.

"Oh, I've had all sorts of politicians admit to me, privately, they know that children's social services is not fit for purpose," she tells me in her office, which is more fairy-tale lair, full as it is of colour and adolescent art. She blends in beautifully. "Trouble is, it's not something they want to go near. If you are a Prime Minister coming into power, you suddenly get hijacked by national and international issues, and you have to prioritise. Political life is short. But the fact remains that there hasn't been a robust recovery plan for children in this country since Victorian times."

Batmanghelidjh has worked tirelessly to rectify this. But as she will tell you herself, "it's hard work". To keep the organisation ticking over – it works with approximately 36,000 children – she needs to raise £24m a year, or £2m a month. The vast majority of money comes from public donations, and philanthropist largesse. Coldplay are supporters, and Jamie Cullum is hosting a black-tie fundraising event at London's Porchester Halls tonight, featuring music from Brit-nominated Laura Mvula, and an auction.

"Jamie came to me with this, which was terribly nice of him," she beams. "He's has been wonderful, as has Sophie [Dahl, Cullum's wife]. She has been continually supportive over the years, Sophie, always trying to find ways to raise funds for us. I'm so grateful to people like that; what they do for us is so valuable, so kind. And, of course, Damien, too."

Damien is Damien Hirst, the artist, who has just donated the auctioned proceeds from one of his paintings, a tidy sum of £900,000. This means Batmanghelidjh has only another £1.1m to raise this month.

"I call myself the Fat Beggar," she says, laughing. "Our donations come from 75,000 different sources a year, and I'm sure many of those sources wish I would just go away and leave them alone. But, ha ha, I won't!"

Batmanghelidjh is of Iranian and Belgian descent. Her family fled Tehran after the 1979 revolution and settled in the UK, where, despite severe dyslexia, she did well at school. She went on to become a psychotherapist before, increasingly frustrated by the limitations under which social services operates, set up her charity in 1996. Some 95 per cent of all children who call into one of its drop-in centres in London and Bristol self-refer, drawn to an initiative seemingly unhindered by the bureaucracy that stifles its government-run counterparts.

The charity's approach, she explains, is holistic. It does not have different divisions for different problems. Instead, it simply has one focus: the children. And so it assists with teaching troubled teens, but also provides safe houses for those sexually and violently abused, and offers hot meals and food vouchers to any family that comes asking. It will even accompany children on appointments to the dentist and doctor. For this, it needs a workforce greater than the full-time staff of 361, which is where the 11,000 volunteers come in.

And then there are the remarkable creative workshops it runs, that encourage children to express themselves through their art. It's powerful stuff. One piece, for example, a Tracey Emin-esque installation called The Pink Room, co-created by a young girl with one of the charity's artists in residence, depicts the girl lying on a bed beneath a toddler's mobile, from which dangle several men's shoes. These represent the male members of her family who were sexually abusing her.

Recent scientific research, to be published in September, will illustrate how intervention by Kids Company assists, on a neurological level, children whose brain functioning is damaged as a result of being chronically frightened all the time. "The frontal lobe rewires," Batmanghelidjh says, "but repair work is possible through assiduously reparenting the child. In other words, vulnerable adolescents need to be treated like toddlers in order for them to be able to recoup that developmental delay."

The results of the study suggest that, after 15 months with Kids Company, children do begin to show dramatic brain-functioning changes. Put another way, they heal.

One of the questions Batmanghelidjh is most routinely asked is why a charity has to carry out such clearly crucial work that should be government policy. Her answer is the stuff of headlines. "Britain has a deep wound in relation to its attitude to childhood," she says, citing that the UK is frequently found at the bottom of the league of the 21 wealthiest countries in terms of well-being for its children.

She suggests that we don't permit the next generation to indulge in childhood so much as merely prepare them for adulthood "as if childhood were merely a waiting-room". And, of those children considered troubled, the impulse is to merely label them accordingly, and attempt damage control.

"If a child flourishes with parental love and care," she says, "then in the absence of that love and care, the state has to find a way to do it. That's the ambition here."

'Heart of Gold', in aid of Kids Company, takes place tomorrow at The Porchester Hall. Tickets are available from thegigcompany.org