A Visit to Free to Be Kids
From the hard streets of South London to the rolling hills and leafy glades of west Sussex: it must have come as a bit of a shock to the children I spent the morning with.
A shock, too, to find that there are other children who feel left out, excluded and unwanted; and, then, to top it all, to find some adults and teenagers who don't wish you harm but wish you happiness and contentment and safety.
I spent a few hours with some of the thirty eight children, aged 8 to 13, who are spending five days at a large residential centre in the Sussex countryside, under the watchful eye of the lovely people at the charity 'Free to Be Kids'. The children come from tough homes, broken homes, special schools, no schools and that familiar mix of muddled back-drops which have left them at risk - risk of harm or risk of simply being over-looked.
My friend David van Eeghan, from the Kids Company days, suggested I might like to meet up with Rachel Nichols and Mike Gee, two others who fought that good fight before a maelstrom of misunderstandings and difficulties brought it crashing down. But whatever happened to Kids Company, the need persists and the joyful truth is that those that care battle on.
In December 2015, Rachel and Mike, and colleague Madi Maxwell formed 'Free to Be Kids' and I went to see what they do. The centre rocks with all the stuff kids like: messy cooking - pancakes were on the menu this morning - swimming, bouncy castles, a lake and the means to explore. In all, the fledgling charity are due to offer respite breaks to over 100 vulnerable children this summer. The theme is 'Knights and Dragons' and it is all subtly structured as a therapeutic adventure with aims and objectives clearly stated.
The kids work in groups to take part in activities built around 'nature', 'animals', 'the arts' and 'cooking & growing'. There are points to win and prizes to aim for; a map Tolkien would have liked records their progress.
Everyone is a volunteer in these early days: 25 of them, including some teenagers and younger adults who the charity call Young Leaders. Some will just feel better for a summer break of positive work; others may make a career of it and Godspeed to them.
It is a sort of therapy by stealth. The prescription is as old as the hills: children doing what children like to do. But through it, these troubled young souls rediscover love, loyalty, collective endeavour and, yes, fun.
As Rachel said to me "They just need to feel special and loved - things too many of them have lost. They've lost, or have never had, 'emotional literacy'. For some it is simply respite from the pressures of their lives; for others, it is part of sustained work to get them to a better place.
I found it a totally uplifting experience. You might look at www.freetobekids.org.uk and feel the same.