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‘’I’m just not wearing a suit.”
This statement by the founder and head of the charity Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh, who died last week at the age of 61, encapsulates the fear, mistrust and ridicule that she faced as a result of her colourful, non-conformist and courageous style.
I got to know Camila 13 years ago, having followed her work for many years. Meeting her for the first time, having been invited to the headquarters of Kids Company in South London, I was not disappointed. True to her distinctive style, she greeted my husband, comedy actor, Paul Whitehouse and me in her office – an environment not dissimilar to her outfits: outlandish, eccentric and playful. She was at ease with herself and applauded him for the Fast Show Foster’s Funny episode in which she was affectionately parodied.
I swiftly went on to become a Kids Company mentor on a voluntary basis, which was a deeply rewarding experience. It also provided me with further opportunities to witness just how much every single child and young adult loved Camila – and how much she loved each of them.
Yes. I use the term love. In her book, Shattered Lives, Camila discusses the problem society has with love – that it is ‘’scared of love because generally, ‘people are afraid of feeling’’. I think she’s right. There are ways we can show love for children – and Kids Company achieved this through its diverse therapeutic, psychological, practical, emotional and educational support provided to children and young people, which was a lifeline for them all, safeguarding them from a life of continued hardship, abuse and neglect. It gave them hope for a better future.
Their stellar line-up of supporters was to become a key feature of Kids Company events. Artist, Damien Hirst, Coldplay’s frontman, Chris Martin, Comedian Michael Mcintyre and entrepreneur, Richard Branson frequently gave their time and resources to raising much-needed funds for the charity. We would attend Kids Company fund-raising events, with celebrities and politicians alike excitedly aligning themselves to the charity because it was the ‘’cool’’ thing to do. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron and his wife were big fans and hosted various events on behalf of Kids Company, including at 10 Downing Street.
Poignant that Camila and many of the children and young adults she supported would end Kids Company’s journey by marching at 10 Downing Street, three days after it was forced to close its doors. The one thing she would not entertain – and in my opinion, would cost her life, was the calculated and persistent attempt by the government to sabotage the transformative work done by her and Kids Company – children and young adults she continued to support until her untimely death.
Camila got back in touch with me after a few years of life getting in the way. True to style, her first missive was affectionate and to the point: ‘’My dear Mine. How are you? A few nights ago, I was dreaming about you and how I was going to try and get you to come work with us. I have managed to set up a school in Lambeth and we want to create a resilience pathway for the children and families. Moving forward, I want us to work together.’’
Sadly, this was never to be. Camila dedicated the few years she had left, fighting to clear her name – and Kids Company’s. Her health continued to deteriorate in the process. She told me that she had not been out of the house since October 2019. ‘’It’s all too risky because if I get Covid, I will die. She also feared being further targeted by the press.
She shared with me the painstakingly detailed Judicial Review of the Charity Commission’s Report, highlighting how ‘’they were so corrupt it’s breathtaking!’’. In her own words: ‘’the Charity Commission’s report and press release about Kids Company lacks truth. Inaccurate information has been released by them and they have not investigated what they should have. I believe they are protecting the very people who drove the damage throughout 2014/15, which resulted in Kids Company closing. Whoever believes the Charity Commission report on Kids Company and its press release is succumbing to their manipulation. The time has come to wise up. The Charity Commission cannot be trusted because they are politically compliant and not independent’’.
She also showed me the letter of support that her solicitor had helped her to prepare, in which financial support to fund her proposed judicial review application was requested. I told her that I unreservedly supported her, while acknowledging that all those involved in discrediting her were corrupt, duplicitous and complicit in sullying her – and Kids Company’s name. I tried to rebuild her confidence and restore her faith in others, commending her for keeping her held high and fighting to expose the truth, but the constant battle drained her.
With the fullness of time, all allegations against Camila and Kid’s Company were disproved and dropped, but despite Camila being completely exonerated, it was not without consequence for her health, wellbeing, work and reputation – with other committed and able people to participate in charity work of this kind being deterred from doing so.
And yet, irrespective of her declining health and continued vilification by the press, Camila remained unrelenting in her mission to support the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. She shared with me news of her current initiatives, which she was at pains to make clear to me that she was ‘’not publicising them, so that the press do not become interested’’.
Camila’s legacy lives on – it lives on through those children and young adults she so selflessly supported – some of whom are now training to be child psychologists, have started their own charities and are mentoring other vulnerable children.
Camila reinforces, for me, the need to remain outspoken concerning children’s rights and to keep fighting against the many avoidable inequities they are forced to face – and to never conform while doing so.
As playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us: ‘’a legacy is planting seeds in a garden that you never get to see’’. Camila has unequivocally achieved this and so much more.