Far from being neglected herself, Camila grew up in an “unbelievably sheltered environment“. Born in 1963 in Tehran to an Iranian entrepreneur and his Belgian wife, “I had one of the most privileged childhoods…I was born into a very well known and wealthy family …”
After two years in a school in Dorset, her own childhood suddenly turned as turbulent. With Iran in the grip of the revolution, her father was arrested and all his assets seized. Camila’s older sister killed herself. All her childhood possessions were burned. Her “entire personal history was wiped out. It was terrifying. My life changed dramatically.” Camila’s teachers helped her to apply for political asylum.
Severely dyslexic, Camila completed her studies using a tape recorder. She went on to study theatre and dramatic arts and later studied for a masters’ degree in the philosophy and psychology of psychotherapy and counseling in London. She did a total of 17 years’ training. “I was intuitively able to work, the training gave me the intellectual ability to name things – it didn’t teach me how to do the work.”
When she started to work as a therapyst she soon became frustrated by the number of her clients who failed to attend more than a few therapy sessions. “I realised the system was flawed because it assumed there was always a responsible adult to take the children to sessions, I wanted to set up a structure where the children could ask for help directly… to develop something that would meet these children’s needs where they were.”
Camila, at the age of 25, stopped her mortgage repayments to finance the foundation of her own charity, The Place2Be, which today provides therapy for 20,000 children every year in schools throughout the country.
Taken to court by her building society, she was only saved from having her flat repossessed by a sympathetic judge. The same two-bedroom £70,000 north London flat has since been re-mortgaged twice to help finance Camila’s second charity, Kids Company.
Camilla set up Kids Company under a railway arch in Peckham in 1996 which has developed into a six-day-a-week service, free for anyone who cares to use it.
Kids Company is a school, canteen and youth club visited by over 500 children a week. Far from a conventional youth club, it was set up specifically as a place for the most vulnerable children who commonly suffer significant mental health and emotional difficulties due to experiences of neglect, abuse and exposure to violence and drugs. Many have dropped out of school; often they’re homeless.
The young people usually self-refer themselves after hearing about the organisation through word-of-mouth. Kids Company provides them with emotional and practical support to bring about positive changes to their lives. It helps them regain access to care and education. It also provides support to teachers and parents who work with disadvantaged children.
Kids Company currently supports some 5,000 vulnerable children and young people.
The unique thing about Kids Company is the attitude of its founder, whose refusal to be intimidated by the harsh circumstances of these kids’ situations, has allowed her to communicate with them where others have failed.
Gaining the respect of the children was a long process. “They admit now they came to destroy it… we were going to be their entertainment... but were taken aback by the fact that I didn’t fight. In the early days they used to say: ‘I’ll shoot you’ or ‘I’ll kill you’, and I’d reply, ‘Only by appointment!’
That’s how the relationship between us got established. They’re little boys. They don’t frighten me at all. I joke with the 17-year-old who’s presenting himself as the biggest thug in Peckham, carrying his knife in his shoe, and I tell him I’m going to pinch his cheeks!”
Something all the children share is a lack of parental care. “… they’re badly traumatised by social circumstances: the exposure to violence … is very high … Many children tell me it’s amazing they have survived 17 years in this neighbourhood. They cannot imagine themselves in the future.”
“… I used Persian hospitality – everyone is welcome no matter how they behave… they can drop in, have a meal, play pool or see our psychologists… They don’t have to talk to us…Just having somewhere safe to go to can be healing in itself … Over time, mutual trust builds up and they share their life experiences with you … There are times when the kids hate you and times when they love you, but they are always honest … I think with a bit of love, a bit of humour and a bit of parenting we got through.”
Kids Company endeavours to attract the children everybody else seeks to avoid, kids who don’t even merit a figure on the audits of many institutions because they are neither in school nor in care. They don’t belong anywhere.
In the daytime, children who are not in school come for counselling and education. When the schools close, the centre becomes a youth club, providing art classes, sport, music, books, hot food and, most importantly, an alternative to the streets. On Christmas Day over 150 children with no better offers filled the centre’s gym for dinner, and Camila ensured there were presents for everyone.
A testimony: She was invisible to the system
Camila runs the charity through her belief in the “healing powers of robust compassion and gentleness“. Kids Company boasts students among its former regulars, as well as responsible parents and professionals. Camila insists, her success rate is determined only by helping a child develop the ability to have a respectful relationship with somebody else.
Her work is influenced by the Attachment theory (based on the results of experiments which showed, approximately, that infant rhesus monkeys preferred emotional attachment over food). This essentially holds that children develop as the direct result of how their first carers engage with them.
To help troubled children learn to develop compassion and care for others, they first need to hear someone apologise for everything they have been through. Kids Company staff do that, then help children to empathise by forming intensive attachment relationships with them. A wide range of techniques is used to assist the staff deal with physically challenging children.
Camila exposes the plight of children who are overlooked by the authorities and denounces those who value bureaucracy over the welfare of the individual child.
She insists on the importance of “loving care”: The healing process for these young people is only possible in the context of sustained relationships, where practical and emotional needs are addressed. Through this healing process, young people are encouraged to take responsibility for their emotions and their behaviours.
Camila responds to them with respect and understanding and has broken through where so many others have failed.
Camila seems a talented fundraiser too, she was named Ernst & Young’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005 and the Woman of the year for 2006.
Other relevent links:
Camila talks about working with profoundly vulnerable youth, Sept 2005, Mp3
My week, Guardian
An insult to the young and unfair to the rest of us, a critical article about Camila in Timesonline
Only Connect, Guardian. “None of us can afford to insulate ourselves from the damage done by deprivation at society’s margins …”
This woman dedicates her life to ASBO kids, The Herald, January, 30, 07
… result of our failure, Guardian, February, 08,07
Violence as the currency of survival, Telegraph, February 16,07