I have reproduced this article by Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, which appeared in The Times just before Christmas, because it is one of the most moving articles I have read for a long time.
As bankers begin to salivate at the thought of the size of their January bonus cheques and politicians applaud themselves for their resolve in dishing out pain and misery for the so-called ‘common good’, isn’t it about time we took a long hard look at our desperately unequal society? Don’t we need some fresh thinking, some ‘big ideas’? I fear it’s a bit too much to hope for. Big ideas do not come from ‘little men’. We are going to need people like Camilla for the foreseeable future.
Fourteen years ago, we decided to open the doors of Kid’s Company on Christmas Day for the first time. The reason? Abuse doesn’t go on holiday. Too many of the children whom we knew and cared for had attempted suicide over the festive season.
Christmas can be one of the saddest times of the year for many of the 14,000 vulnerable children that the charity sees each year. As one little boy explained: “Father Christmas doesn’t know where we live.”
On Christmas Day he will be picked up and brought to a school that, with the help of some of the 10,799 amazing people who volunteer with Kids Company each year, will be converted into a magical Christmas land. An army of cooks will conjure up a meal of fish and chicken drumsticks, brussels sprouts and potatoes for about 3,000 children and young people.
As the queue of hungry children extends around the building we always live in fear that there won’t be enough food to feed them, as well as to provide takeaway boxes for those living alone in hostels and bed-and-breakfast hotels.
Bags of personalised, hand-wrapped presents are lined up for going home time. Teenage girls shriek with delight when they unwrap lotions and potions. The boys shyly try on scarves and hats. Wrapping paper is crushed by little feet as toys are excitedly opened. On the surface it’s like any Christmas gathering across Britain.
Kids fight and have tantrums, they giggle and tease, then collapse exhausted to listen to stories. Face painters transform weary faces. The dressing-up corner is busy with fairies and firemen fighting it out.
The teenagers grunt, strut and struggle to disguise their childlike delight. The staff work hard; they continuously set boundaries for the children, negotiate, mediate and accept the occasional defeat.
The child psychotherapist is dressed as a clown, ever vigilant for upset kids. The 30 security men watch every corner, and the police are on stand-by, because this Christmas party is not ordinary.
The majority of these kids are very disturbed. They have been chronically abused and neglected by parents who have unwittingly recycled their own childhood traumas. We look after children whose dads have been shot dead or who languish in prison; whose mums survive as sex workers, abuse drugs or struggle with mental illness.
They live in neighbourhoods where young people are regularly shot and stabbed. We have seen children too terrified to go to the toilet for fear of getting another beating – who lift the carpet to pee through the floorboards.
We see kids who lack a bed, who are not registered with a GP. These are children who survive, not enjoy, childhood – these are children who are too agitated to go to school day after day.
So we open on Christmas Day for Melinda, aged 13, who was raped four times this year; for Anushka who saw her mother’s head cracked open with a machete when she was 4; for Trevor who held his father in his arms after he had a fit after yet another crack cocaine binge. The nine-year-old frequently calls the ambulance and then sits biting his own arms, unable to cry. Sapphire won’t talk. Quennel won’t eat because his stepfather used to punish him by making him swallow his faeces. These are not parents who provide Christmas cheer.
The potential for shame is enormous. Sharon explains that because of her mother’s commitment to a mortgage there wasn’t enough money to buy Christmas presents. I know that they live in a squat and that there is no mortgage. Adrian is braver. He tells me that his mother couldn’t even be bothered to get him a pair of socks.
Sometimes the handful of mothers who attend show their desperation by trying to grab the present bags, terrified that there won’t be enough. I watch their children sigh with despair at yet another loss of control by their parents.
Very few say thank you; their hunger is too profound to be quenched. Those who have love for their children feel diminished and humiliated at not being able to buy the Xbox or PlayStation that the kids keep seeing under the Christmas tree in picture-perfect homes on television.
Everyone is hurting
Amid all this turbulence are the thousands of extraordinary volunteers who prepare food bags, wrap presents and act as entertainers on Christmas Day. Not to mention those who turn up on Boxing Day for the big clean-up. Our staff, resolute and kind, play-fight, hug and console children whose moods shift like quicksilver.
Through all of December I walk around with a bleak dread, terrified that we won’t have the money to buy presents, look after the children, pay for taxis, which we need to pick them up and drop them off. I have sleepless nights but in the morning the kindness of an individual transforms the day.
There are incredible companies and individuals who donate money, food and gifts by the thousands. A complete a stranger left £10,000 to Kids Company in her will. She wasn’t rich, just awe-inspiringly generous.
At Kids Company on Christmas Day the best and the worst of humanity meet. At 9pm I hand over to our 24 hour Christmas emergency team who will keep an eye on all the vulnerable children until January 4.
At 10pm I get to go home and usually I burst into tears. I cry because of the grief of so many of the brave children, their incredible ability to forgive all of us for falling short time and time again. Then I ring the staff who came, to thank them personally, and then with two fat bags under my eyes I collapse into my bed.
My mother gave up her Christmas Day with me, so that I could be where my heart says I should be. I am both grateful and sorry.
If you have been moved by this account of Christmas at Kids Company, a donation can be made online at www.kidsco.org.uk/donate or by sending it to Kids Company, 1 Kenbury Street, London SE5 9BS. Thank you.