No one seemed to care about Neang*. Overlooked by everyone, she was the youngest child of a single mother whose father died when she was just three months old.
But one day, a young woman from the same community noticed Neang.
Serey was a 23 year-old Alongsider mentor prayerfully choosing a "little sister". She herself was searching for a way forward in life after growing up in poverty, so she knew the challenges facing Neang and wanted to serve. Serey says,
Today Serey is still a "big sister" to Neang. Serey has been walking alongside Neang for the past eight years.
Neang is now 14 years old, and Serey still meets with her regularly. They are part of the same church family. But the challenges of growing up in a slum continue for Neang.
A few months ago Neang announced to her family that she would drop out of school after the 9th grade. The family needed money and she had a plan to attend classes to become a beautician and then open her own little beautician booth. She had heard about a government scholarship for vocational training. Besides, she liked make-up and hair-styling. She and her friends often practiced on each other. They like feeling beautiful.
For teenage girls living in the slum, some version of this story is the norm, not an exception. Among the poorest of the poor in Cambodia, just over half of the children attend primary school. Only a tiny percentage of students continue through high school.
And like students her age everywhere, Neang felt like she had been in school for a LONG time with no end in sight. Unlike students in many other places, the majority of her older role models have dropped out of school and taken jobs in local factories, and most of her peers will do the same. The money is very tempting, even $120 per month earned by working ten hour days, six days a week in a factory.
Neang’s grandmother, who runs the household, also liked the idea of Neang earning money to help with expenses. Neither Neang’s mother nor her grandmother finished high school, but they understand hard work. The sooner Neang gets a job or starts a small business, the sooner she can help support the family - and they can use the money.
Four years of high school (with significant costs in school supplies and fees) is a long time to wait. Besides, Neang's grades are average, and her family is poorer than most.
When Serey heard about Neang’s announcement, she went to meet with her and ask some questions. How would Neang get the money to open her own business? She didn't know. Serey probed further and asked Neang about her personal vision. She asked her to think about the long term. What would she truly love to do that she felt she might be good at?
"I would like to be a teacher," Neang answered softly.
Serey smiled her encouragement. "A teacher? What will it take to become a teacher?"
After discussing the options with Serey and her family, Neang decided to finish high school first, and then decide whether to go to beautician classes or university. Either way would present challenges, but having a high school diploma will be a tangible asset and possibly a way out of poverty.
Becoming a teacher is an audacious idea. Kids who grow up in the slum rarely become high school graduates; they rarely attend university; and they very rarely become teachers.
Having your own business is also a worthy goal.
Whatever direction Neang takes will require courage and dedication, and someone to walk alongside her as she makes big decisions.
You need someone standing with you to help you voice a vision. You need someone walking alongside to help you stick with that vision. Serey wants to be that person for Neang.
Neang says of her Alongsider mentor, "She encourages me. She helps me stay on a good path."
Neang is no longer overlooked. And with Serey's help, she might just see some of her audacious dreams come true.
Serey offers this insight, "When Neang was young she had a lot of shame, and she felt afraid. But she became brave."
* Neang's full name is Srey Neang