As we approach what would have been the late Dame Anita Roddick's 80th birthday, we take a look back at our history and what sparked Anita and her company, The Body Shop to co-found Children on the Edge in 1990. Rachel Bentley, our CEO talks about Anita in those early days, describing how The Body Shop and Children on the Edge are still working to create brighter futures for children around the world to this day.
The 23rd October 2022 would have been the 80th birthday of the late Dame Anita Roddick, who co-founded Children on the Edge, along with our CEO Rachel Bentley.
Anita was a businesswoman, human rights activist and environmental campaigner and probably best known as the founder of The Body Shop, in 1976.
In 1990, shocked by the images of starved, shaven-headed orphans that dominated the headlines after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist government, Anita decided to travel to Romania to see the situation for herself. On her first visit to a Romanian orphanage, she was horrified to see scores of listless toddlers in cold, dark rooms that stank of urine. These children were caged in cots, day and night, and deprived of all human contact except when they were fed through the bars.
Anita quickly mobilised her company - The Body Shop, to send supplies and a small group of volunteers, to help three orphanages in the remote village of Halaucesti. Rachel Bentley, a 23-year-old law graduate, was one of these volunteers, and together, they sparked the response that created Children on the Edge, which exists to this day to support some of the most marginalised children around the world.
Rachel describes how, “Suddenly there I was, a 23 year old, working in a small team with Anita’s daughters, helping to lead an international humanitarian project. Within five years, our work had led to the closure of those dreadful institutions. We were young and stupid enough to think we could change the childcare system in Romania. Anita believed we could. And we did.”
By 1992, they started the charity Children on the Edge in an official capacity, together with The Body Shop. By this time, they had developed considerable expertise in working with institutionalised children, successfully integrating around 4,000 back into the society that had rejected them and creating brighter futures.
The charity grew, and continued to apply what Anita had taught them: to trust your gut and always listen to people on the ground, who know the culture and understand the needs of their own people best.
Anita continued to guide and encourage Rachel, who says:
“Anita knew that when you are young you have the energy and the ideas. At a time when I wasn’t being listened to, Anita listened. She would use her influence to ensure we were taken seriously by decision makers.
For example, when at a refugee camp I became frustrated when the bigger aid agencies were discussing building shower blocks, and the conversations were going nowhere. I had suggested providing mobile showers, so we could meet the needs of refugees flexibly, but I was laughed out of the room. A week later Anita showed up and I told her about my shower idea, she immediately put it forward. People listened to her, and within 3 weeks we had them manufactured”.
Rachel was awarded an OBE in the Queens Birthday Honours in June 2022, for services to the protection and education over marginalised children worldwide.
Today, we continue to adapt and respond, always working on the “edge” for a world where every child can thrive, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, caste or geography. The 'edge' in 1990 was the institutionalisation of children in Romania, and today, the 'edge' is refugee children; stripped of their rights to education, and denied their chances of a brighter future.
Education breaks ongoing cycles of displacement and poverty, and the classroom creates a place where hope can begin, and children can start to flourish.
Children on the Edge now provide education for over 17,000 refugee children who have fled persecution, conflict or violence. Our award-winning programmes use innovative ways to enable access to education, working alongside local communities to find the best possible solutions.
We train refugee teachers so that children can learn in their own dialect, from familiar, trusted adults that understand them and our classrooms are fun and colourful environments where children are safe and can learn to express themselves.
Watch the video below to find out more about our work with refugees