By Grace Nasri, Iran Times
An Iranian-British woman previously named Social Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman of the Year for her unique and charitable work is the founder of a south London-based youth center that has helped children suffering from various traumas successfully reintegrate into society.
Born in Iran in 1963 and raised in England, Camila Batmanghelidjh founded Kids Company in 1996 as a small charity which has since grown, attracting international attention. Today, Kids Co. works with more than 13,000 in-need children by doing a variety of things from providing children with food and new clothing, to consoling children who have been through traumatic events and preparing them to successfully reintegrate into society.
The idea behind Kids Co came to Batmanghelidjh when she was still a child living in Iran. Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times, "I knew as a nine-year-old that I wanted to do this kind of work, I just thought I would be opening an orphanage in Iran. My family used to tease me about it all the time," she laughed. "But because we ended up having to live in England, I couldn't do it."
After the 1979 Iranian revolution, Batmanghelidjh-who was raised in a wealthy, upper-class family, was sent to the UK where she studied at the Sherborne boarding school. It was there, at the age of 14, that she came up with the idea for Kids Co., which she hoped would become a street center to provide parental constancy for children in need.
Although her dream of establishing an orphanage in Iran didn't come to fruition, the 46-year-old Batmanghelidjh didn't allow her move to stop her from her passion-working with in-need children. Instead, she opened up the Peckham-based Kids Co.
At the center, Batmanghelidjh-who was named the UK's Social Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2006, the UK's Woman of the Year by the Good Housekeeping magazine in 2006 and Person of the Year by the New Statesman magazine in 2006-employs a staff of more than 300 to work with the troubled youth at the center in addition to an additional 11,000 troubled children in 33 local primary schools. Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times that the children and young adults she works with are 97 percent self-referrals; many of the babies are brought in by older brothers and sisters.
Kids Co.'s drop-in center is used by about 1,000 kids and young adults, ranging in age from infancy to 25; most, however, are in their teens. Of those 1,000, more than 80 percent have a history of drug use, criminal involvement, homelessness, traumatic pasts, mental disturbance or emotional difficulties.
"The police have said to me, 'We've got a new kind of kid-they shoot and they don't even bother to run away,' " Batmanghelidjh told The Guardian of London. "That's what I see when they first arrive. I've seen that lethally, deadly capacity. That's not something you can control through sanctions, because all your sanctions are about preserving life. That idea comes from middle-class people who think life is worth living. They can't get into the minds of kids and understand their hopelessness. These kids don't think even being free is worth it. They will just say, 'Come on, then, I don't give a shit.' And they really mean it. They are so dangerous because they have nothing to lose.
"The children who walk in our door lack the kind of compassionate companion, whether a parent, or someone who is going to take responsibility for their childhood," Batmanghelidjh told The Times of London. "More painful for these kids than the abuse is the humiliation of having not been chosen. Part of our task is to say to that kid you are worthwhile....whatever you do, we want you. Punishment or shouting doesn't work; they are immune. They need to be surprised by something else. And what surprises them is relentless tough love," she said.
Batmanghelidjh told the story of one 12-year old boy she worked with who had stabbed his stepfather for attacking his mother-both of whom were addicted to crack. The boy, who had had a gun put into his mouth by an addict, said he slept with knives under his pillow from fear. He was a terrifying, angry child, she said, adding, "I'd...sit next to him and say 'You're too cute to frighten me!'"
But from those children who enter Kids Co. as hopeless adolescents, many turn out to be success stories. Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times of one child, Florence, who was homeless when she came to Kids Co. but who is now studying at Oxford, while other kids she has worked with have moved on to study a range of fields from aeronautical engineering to computer science.
Batmanghelidjh explained that roughly "one-third of the children end up at the university, one-third end up in employment and one-third have severe, long-term psychiatric disorders."
The Iran native, who speaks Farsi, French and English, said that unlike other state funded programs, her program is successful because it understands the minds of the children by using the most up-to-date neuroscience research and applying the findings at the street level. To do so, Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times that Kids Co. has 35 international developmental trauma specialists working with it to do research to better understand the children.
"The reason we've been approached nationally, and why our program is internationally considered unique, is that we've worked out and understood their [the children's] trauma so that the children stop behaving dangerously," Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times.
The program is considered so unique, in fact, that in 2007 an Iranian delegation came to Kids Co. where Batmanghelidjh offered them training so they could learn their practices and then use them back in Iran. The Iranian delegation, Batmanghelidjh told the Iran Times, consisted of various orphanages, the social services and a university for social workers.
Recently, London University research found that 91 percent of Kids Co. clients were reintegrated into education, 90 percent of those with a criminal history had reduced their illegal activity and 94 percent had decreased their dependence on and use of drugs.
Batmanghelidjh, who has spoken extensively and has been widely published for her articles on children living on the fringe and their welfare, had her book, "Shattered Lives: Children Living with Courage and Dignity," published in 2006.
The personal side of Batmanghelidjh's work, however, is only one aspect of her job; she must also come up with funding for her organization. Until last year, Kids Co. had no state funding. Recently, however, the British government awarded a 12.7 million pound ($20.9 million) grant to be spent over three years on the center's 400 most troubled teens. But Batmanghelidjh still has to fundraise to pay for the remaining 13,000 children. In addition to needing funding for the day-to-day operation of the program, Kids Co. is currently looking for further funding for brain research studies.
To donate to Kids Company visit their website at: www.kidsco.org.uk.
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