With children's charity Barnardos launching a controversial poster campaign to highlight awareness of abused children, PATRICK JOHN talks to a 120-year-old group which is helping children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Stephen is an amiable 13-year-old in south-east London who suffers from low self-esteem and has emotional difficulties.

Since he started school he has been called "stupid" and believes he is, because it is all he has ever known. But Stephen kept going to school because of his dream to join the army. He also stuck by his friends no matter what.

That is, until a year ago when he saw one of his friends being bullied in the street. He stepped in to try and stop the group of older children bullying her and one of them threw a rock which hit his eye.

Despite several attempts to save his sight, Stephen is blind in one eye and his dream of joining the army is in tatters.

Worse still, Stephen missed school for a long time because of his treatment and when the Children's Society found him, he was wandering around his school playground apparently with no lessons to go to.

Through the charity, which runs several different schemes to help young people, Stephen now has a place at a new school and stays in touch with the Children's Society which monitors his progress.

This is just one example of how the Children's Society, which is celebrating its 120th birthday this year, has helped children all over the country to succeed, even if they are from extremely underprivileged backgrounds.

These days the organisation is at the forefront of youth welfare and has been the driving force behind several successful projects up and down the country. In Lewisham, the Children's Society has a project which works with young people in care ensuring their voices are heard in any discussions about their future.

The Lewisham branch provides guardians and drop-in facilities for young people to get support from volunteers.

There is also a project across south-east London called Genesis which aims to prevent children being formally excluded from education or excluding themselves by truanting.

Genesis provides counselling services for pupils and lunchtime clubs which aim to prevent children from offending outside school hours.

The biggest project in the area is to help the homeless. Children's Society research has shown of the 11,000 teenagers under 16 who ran away from home last year, 2,820 ended up sleeping rough in London.

The charity runs various schemes to help children in trouble on the streets.

The society's chief executive Ian Sparks said: "Too many young people in London are dealt the triple obstacles of high rents, poor housing and no support. Tackling youth homelessness is about giving people the environment and opportunity to thrive in. This is what we are trying to do through housing projects."

To find out more about the Children's Society or to make a donation, call 020 7639 1466.

How it all started

THE Children's Society was founded in 1881 by Lambeth Sunday school teacher Edward de Montjoie Rudolf.

He was worried one day when two of his students failed to turn up to lessons and so went out to look for them and found them begging on the streets.

He learnt their father had died and left their mother struggling to support her seven children all aged under 11.

Realising the children would end up in the squalid Victorian workhouses, Rudolf went to the Archbishop of Canterbury Campbell Tait with a radical plan to set up homes where children were kept in a safe, loving family environment.

Archbishop Tait enthusiastically endorsed the idea and the first home opened in Dulwich in 1882. Now the Children's Society is an acknowledged pioneer in the field of childcare.

June 22, 2001 15:31