Child support

For most of us, running the London Marathon would be an honourable achievement, something we could brag to our friends about, or maybe an excuse to dress up as a giant Womble. For the several young adults who spend their mornings toiling in the gym of charity Kids Company, just having the inclination to attempt the 26-mile slog is a remarkable achievement.

Kids Company is one of two charities that The Lawyer is funding in conjunction with the The Lawyer Awards 2008. The organisation, founded in 1996 by effervescent psychotherapist Camila Batmanghelidjh, has two drop-in centres, one in Camberwell and one in Southwark. It also works with 33 schools across London and caters for 11,500 vulnerable children and teenagers in the capital.

The Southwark office is fundamentally an education unit for adolescents over the age of 16. The centre runs courses in art, drama and fashion, as well as offering basic English and mathematics lessons and providing three meals a day. It also has a career advice centre and offers a range of alternative therapies, including massage, reflexology and osteopathy. Staff duties can range from helping students look for work, booking driving lessons and even a bit of retail therapy.

Chloe Hill, who is based primarily in the Southwark office, joined Kids Company five years ago and is now one of the charity’s leading key workers. She says: “Kids Company actually originated in Camberwell, where we worked with kids that had fallen through the system and hadn’t been picked up by social services. Our centre is for kids who’ve dealt with their issues and are ready to move forward in their life.

“What we do is all based around life skills. We allow them to reach their full potential by giving them a stepping stone back into further education.”

Everyone who attends Kids Company’s Southwark office is assigned a key worker, enabling them to have regular one-to-one contact with a trusted member of staff. Their needs are assessed and a plan is devised. Students are also given the opportunity to have care plan meetings with their key workers every three months, giving them the chance to raise issues and gauge progress.

Hill explains how she has always been compelled to pursue charity work. “I spent a year working for Comic Relief and they gave a grant to Kids Company, so I went for an interview and started working for them the very next day. I’ve always had an interest in fundraising and charity work. I like working with people and feel that some of my life experiences have enabled me to relate to these kids. At least on some level.”

The charity has seen staff numbers swell from three to 35 since Hill’s arrival. “We now have 200 full-time staff,” she says. “There’s just more demand now that we’ve got more corporate organisations on board. When I began we had 2,000 kids and now we have 11,500. We have child protection officers and a lot of therapists and counsellors. We also have a mentoring system in place. In the past we’ve had volunteers take large groups of kids down to the River Thames. I mean, some of them have never seen it before. It really gives them the chance to experience things that weren’t possible before. These are the kind of children that have never really had any support or family structure and certainly no adult figures to guide them.”

Volunteers at Kids Company come from all walks of life and cover a range of professions, including artists, students, barristers and lawyers. The charity has even managed to get a few (unnamed) celebrities involved, although Hill claims this is still a work in progress. “As the charity has got more high-profile, people have wanted to get involved with us, which is fantastic. We haven’t got any patrons, but we do have a few celebs onboard,” says Hill.

She hopes the money provided by The Lawyer will help to create a school of excellence that can be replicated nationally. “That’s the long-term plan,” she states. “There’s demand out there in all the big cities. In the meantime the money will be used to pay staff and buy much-needed equipment.”

When speaking of some of the achievements of her students, Hill can barely conceal her joy. “I had one girl called Jane who was the victim of a huge family breakdown,” she says. “She was sexually abused as a child and was living in a children’s home. But she somehow managed to get four A levels and is now studying media at Middlesex University. One of my kids is now attending the London School of Fashion and several are training for this year’s London Marathon. They’re really incredible kids. Their resilience, drive, energy and willingness to continue is remarkable. So many could end up in the gutter, but there’s something in them that makes them want to carry on.”

Indeed, when one marathon-bound teen proclaims “26 miles is nothing”, it’s easy to see what he means.