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Young artists open door on a living hell

The writing is on the wall. Life at home is hell. It's evil. Enter any room at the Behind Closed Doors art exhibition in south London, and enter the mind of a young child and a reflection of the world in which they live.

It quickly becomes painfully apparent that these child artists need help. They urgently need a safe haven and time out from life as it is lived in one of the country's most deprived inner-city areas.

"Help me", screams the black lettering in a painting by John, 14. A poem by Joe, aged nine, pleads: "Violence will not solve anything. Why don't you stop whipping? ... Stop, stop, stop! It's ENOUGH."

Fortunately, help is at hand for these unhappy, disturbed children. It comes in the shape of Camila Batmanghelidjh, a half-Iranian, half-Belgian 33-year-old clinical psychotherapist whose first project, The Place To Be, was described by the psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach as a "model project".

Ms Batmanghelidjh's charity, Kids Company, comprises a team of 90 volunteer and paid counsellors, therapists, artists, musicians and sports enthusiasts who have spent the past year going into schools to provide emotional support for children.

Now she is putting down roots so that, as well as going out to the children, the children can come to her. Later this month, she opens her own Young People's Centre. Situated in a notoriously poor area of south London, the centre, near Elephant and Castle, will be in the warehouse now housing the exhibition. It will provide an open house to young people in need of a safe environment outside school hours.

"These are children invisible to most services - they need help but have not received it," said Ms Batmanghelidjh, whose clients are sometimes as young as five and include a notorious, Peckham-based gang which calls itself the Knife Boys. "These are children who have very little attention from adults and who cope with their difficulties on their own. Many of them have experienced violence, bereavement, abuse or neglect from a young age. By offering warmth and consistency we give them new ways of coping emotionally."

The centre is easily accessible. Children don't have to rely on parents - the bulk of whom have mental problems themselves - to attend appointments or receive help. They can refer themselves or be referred by teachers. They will be able to pursue creative interest, including art, dance, drama, music, cookery and jewellery making, as well as receive counselling.

"Many of the youngsters lack a positive, nurturing environment," said Ms Batmanghelidjh. "Many, by their own admission, would normally be roaming the streets, fighting or even committing petty crimes. The centre will be a place where children's talents can be developed and encouraged, and their worries can be heard and understood. These simple things can rekindle a child's hope."

Kids Company is extremely cost effective and, in the long-run, a "socially intelligent option," she added. "It costs Kids Company pounds 500 a year to help a child, as opposed to the pounds 2,500 that it costs clinics and agencies. To keep a young offender in an institution costs around pounds 30,000 a year - yet the need for this can in some cases be avoided if a child can be reached early."

Based on research undertaken at The Royal Free Hospital, in Hampstead, north-west London, Ms Batmanghelidjh claims that after about nine months a child shows marked improvements in self-esteem, attitude and behaviour.

The project now urgently needs to raise pounds 361,000 to equip and run the centre, which it hopes will service 1,000 children a year in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays.

t The exhibition is at 260-261 Grosvenor Court, off Walworth Road, and runs until 30 May. To make a donation, write to: Kids Company, 40 Barforth Road, Nunhead, London SE15 3PS.