Remember when we wrote about Camila Batmanghelidjh after the riots? Well the nice people at American Express and the New West End Company asked if we’d like to meet her this week, mostly so we could ‘big up’ the American Express Shop West End VIP Weekend coming up on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th December (more of that and how they are raising money for Kids Company below), but frankly any excuse to talk to her is fine by us.
We met her at the Covent Garden Hotel, where she coordinated perfectly with the interior of Red Room. We could have listened to her all day, she is incredibly inspiring and her Kids Company does lifesaving work with many vulnerable London kids. Jane and I wanted to give everything up and go and work for her, she has that sort of effect on you.
As you tuck into your turkey this Christmas day, spare a thought for the children she works with, who are seriously disadvantaged and live, for many of us, no more than a bus ride away.
She said many wise things, all interjected with peels of raucous laughter, here are just a few highlights…
On Christmas at Kids Company
‘The suicide and attempted suicide levels go up in December, so Kids Company opens up on Christmas Day. The kids queue up to get in, last year we had 1600 come and the atmosphere is like a cross between Haiti and Noah’s Arc.
We open at 7.00am and it ends about 8-9.00pm and when it’s over with nothing terrible having happened, I breathe a huge sigh of relief!
As well as lunch and somewhere safe to come, we give every child a present; the teenagers get a hamper with lots of little things to unwrap, they absolutely adore toiletries! Plus a food bag. Younger kids get anything we can get our hands on, we have about 400 hundred people volunteering to wrap, so every present will be properly labelled.
68% of our children don’t have enough food at home, so we prepare food bags for them to take away for Boxing Day. During the riots, food, nappies and medicine were stolen -Morrisons got cleaned out, if you’re stealing sacks of rice it’s more about need than greed, that didn’t come out (in the press) much.
Often it’s that the parents (of the kids that turn up at the centres) can’t get it together to ‘do’ Christmas, they are often like children themselves. What’s heartbreaking is hearing the children make excuses for their parents, like ‘Oh my mum can’t do Christmas because she’s got a mortgage to pay’ when you know full well mum hasn’t got a mortgage. The parent child bond is profound on many levels, we work hard to respect that.”
On the one thing that you can do to help this year
“We need donations. We keep our telephone lines open all through Christmas, so money allows us cover for workers to be around for the whole period. We also give cash to kids for their electricity meters. If you have an extended family you can go somewhere warm if the meter runs out, these kids don’t have that.”
(Also, if anyone’s involved in producing dry goods like biscuits, toiletries or might want to donate product, check out the How You Can Help section on the website or donate by credit card here)
On what Kids Company is about
“We look after 17,000 children with different levels of need, the best way to describe us is as an additional parenting resource for parents who are struggling. We aim to strengthen the parent, that’s always our first priority, but if that’s not possible, we supplement that care and the child is always our primary concern. Our centres are open seven days a week.
We do daily lunch, after school care, evening meals and we make sure kids get home, we check it’s safe. This year we’ve bought 226 beds because often our kids are sleeping on the floor. We stay with these kids until they are older, in jobs or at university, sometimes longer.”
On what makes her cross
“In private the politicians say the child protection system isn’t fit for purpose, but none of them will go near it, mostly because kids don’t vote, so we’re in a risky space at the moment. What I find really difficult to understand is the way some child services departments hide behind beaurocracy and systems, it doesn’t help the children at all. I don’t get why they just don’t combine together and shout about how bad things are.”
On how she copes with the job
‘I’m fundamentally in a good mood always! My base line is good! There are times when the kids stories make me swallow a golf ball of emotion, but if they have had the courage to live through it, then heck, I can listen to it. But usually after Christmas Day I burst into tears, the volume of emotion going through all of us is enormous and it has to come out. It’s not tears of despair because It’s a happy place, you can get high on kindness.”
On her colourful outfits (when we saw her she was wearing a combination of six different pinky-red prints, a bit of tartan, floral fingerless gloves and pink Crocs and that’s before we get to the accessories…)
“In terms of my dress sense, I grew up in a wealthy household in Iran, my mum was a Jaeger wearer, she wore classy outfits with pearls. But I was noticing pictures in magazines of Iranian women in the mountains wearing layers of colours and prints and I started to copy this. It’s a way of dressing that has always been with me, it takes me about two minutes to get dressed
My line has always been to be authentic, I have a lot of energy and for me this style of dressing is natural. The kids for years have been trying to get me into a pair of trainers, I tell them ‘they look too ugly!’
It does give the kids confidence to build their own sense of style and feel, well if the boss of the organisation looks like that, anything goes!”
We have done this as a sponsored post, which we are donating to Kids Company.
American Express is promising to donate £1 to Kids Company for every purchase made on an American Express card at the American Express Shop West End VIP Weekend, and its giving cardholders double rewards, so that’s a good way to help too, if you have one.
Also, if your name is Carol, the New West End Company want to hear from you, as they are organising a Carol-a-thon (I know, I know) over the weekend which aims to raise further funds for Kids Company, get in touch with them via the website if you are interested.
The American Express Shop West End VIP Weekend occurs in Oxford, Regent , Old Bond and New Bond Street, all traffic free, for 11th and 12th December.