Weekend headlines said that one of the most important children’s charities operating in three major UK cities will close at Christmas unless government steps in with “significant funding”.
I just can’t get my head around this. If you don’t recognise the charity’s name, Kids Company, you may know its larger-than-life founder Camila Batmanghelidjh, remarkable for her habit of wearing such brightly-coloured voluminous clothing and a turban that she reminds me of a large and friendly tea-cosy (no offence).
When you see her in the flesh and hear her speak she burns herself into your memory. She’s a true visionary, gifted, driven, compassionate and utterly non-judgmental about the young people she works with. Kids Company supports 36,000 disturbed and vulnerable children and young adults in London, Bristol and Liverpool.
The charity depends for its continued work on the generosity of a few celebrity philanthropists including Harry Potter author JK Rowling; the band Coldplay; comedian Michael McIntyre; artist Damien Hirst.
Last month, Camila had to ask Coldplay to send their annual gift early in order to meet bills: that donation’s around £1.3m.
She explained: “I have to raise almost £2m a month and everyone I could beg from during the summer was away on holiday. We had queues of children who in term-time get free school meals waiting to be fed, and we had to pay for their therapists accompanying our children on activity holidays”.
Camila is not a woman given to despair. Quite the opposite. She’s one of those extraordinary human beings who appears to be able to do the impossible: her charity does the impossible every day of the week. Without the support of those wealthy celebrity donors, she says there would be “many thousands of children on the streets of London and Bristol, exposed to criminality, rape and homelessness”.
She takes in children and adolescents who’ve been raped, prostituted, abused and exploited by gangs, who have grown up in drug and crime-ridden homes without care or support.
She doesn’t just feed and clothe them: she finds them healing, care and the love they’ve lacked all their lives. One study of her charity’s work found that young people treated by it for an average of 1½ years had reached a point at which they were once again capable of normal emotional reactions. Her charity’s work is mainstream by any standards. These are children in need, on the streets or in abusive homes, whose rescue and cure (and I mean cure) depends on wealthy individuals who are reached by Batmanghelidjh’s unequalled networking skills.
But hold on! Don’t we have a welfare state? Aren’t Health and Social Services there to pick up those very cases and put them back together? Don’t we pay taxes to fund that necessary support? Should the state rely on even so uniquely gifted a mover and shaker as Camila Batmanghelidjh to do its job for it?
I could broaden this argument. Why do I regularly dip into my pocket for the Great North Air Ambulance? Now helicopters are a mainstream and standard means of getting urgent cases to hospital, why are we asked to fund them as an extra? Why are they not part of the admittedly massive bill the government shoulders for running a Health Service?
Some activities and good causes can never receive enough money: charities researching heart disease, cancer, strokes, everything else; many excellent causes were supported by sponsored participants in the Great North Run. Such research will soak up as much money as can be thrown at it, all in the interest of achieving major breakthroughs.
I find it hard to accept that the care of children abused, neglected, raped and exploited on the streets should be left to an independent charity while government turns its back.
And I can’t see how our society can claim to be either caring or compassionate while it depends entirely on donations to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.