Sreymao pressed forward. Step-by-step. Hardly stopping to rest. The road stretched out ahead, full of challenges: hard clay ridges and rain-slickened ruts that might catch the foot of her crutch or send her sliding.
Two hundred meters to go. It had been a long morning at school and she just wanted to be home.
Suddenly a group of boys came running up the road behind her, shouting and swinging their school bags around their heads like helicopter blades. She didn’t have time to brace herself. The first one shouldered her as he went by, and then the swinging bag of the third one crashed down on her arm just as her weight shifted.
The crutch slipped sideways and she fell off the side of the road into a muddy hole.
A farmer, unfortunately, had started digging a pond on that spot. It was empty except for two or three inches of rainwater and mud at the bottom. At least it was a soft landing. She found her crutch and shook it free of water and muck.
As she picked herself up and attempted to wipe clay off her navy blue skirt and white school shirt, she realized with a sickening dread that the lip of the pond was nearly eye-level.
She couldn’t pull herself out.
In that moment she heard a bicycle approaching. She called out for help and braced herself for the shame of discovery. But her eyes lit up as the rider appeared. It was Karuna, her ally – her Alongsider “big sister!”
Karuna took Sreymao’s hands, pulled her up, and gave her a ride home on the back of her bicycle. At the house Karuna explained to Sreymao’s mother what had happened. From inside the house they heard a crash. When Karuna entered she found a muddy school bag in a heap.
And then, Sreymao finally let the tears come out.
This isn’t a true story in the historical sense, but it will be very “real” for many young Cambodians who read it. It’s the first couple of pages of the story told in our latest comic book, which has already been delivered to the printer.
We are creating culturally aware comic books with engaging stories and simple, practical lessons. They form the core of our curriculum.
Every month Alongsiders group leaders distribute copies of the newest comic to the Alongsider mentors who in turn read through them interactively with their little brothers and sisters.
Alongsiders Cambodia is empowering a movement of mentors at the social and economic margins. These comic books provide a simple structure and an effective means to communicate vision, equip leaders, and enable learning together.
Comic books don't transform people, but Alongsider mentors reading them interactively with their little brothers and sisters in growing relationships is transforming.
Now let’s return to the story. What will the Alongsider mentors and their little brothers and sisters take away from it? Following are four lessons this comic directly and indirectly conveys.
1. We choose to see the most vulnerable people in our midst.
There are many poor and vulnerable children in Cambodia. In this comic the team deliberately set out to tell a story about someone who is more vulnerable than most. Most of us are pretty good at spotting people in need from a distance, but in some insidious way, we (many of us) are adept at filtering out the most vulnerable people in our own neighborhoods and communities. The same thing happens in Cambodia.
When Alongsider mentors read this comic with their little brothers and sisters, it’s a reminder of the vision and calling they responded to. When young adults sign up to become mentors, they agree to: 1) choose a little brother or sister who lives in their own community, 2) choose someone of the same gender, 3) choose someone who is most vulnerable, 4) choose someone who is NOT a relative, family friend, or church member, and 5) pray about the decision.
Alongsider mentors are learning to see and value people who most others overlook!
2. It takes discipline and perseverance to succeed.
This is the direct message in the story. It's not really a story about disability; it's about a girl developing the kind of character it takes to succeed in education and life.
Sreymao is ready to give up, but Karuna encourages her to stick with it. They study together and work hard, and as a result Sreymao's grades and attitude improve. It's a simple message, but it's part of a series of lessons that build on one another, and this one can make a difference in a child's life - especially if the Alongsider mentor follows Karuna's example!
3. We are defined by our choices, not by our weaknesses.
We are all vulnerable, but we don't want to be defined by what we lack.
This story doesn't treat Sreymao like a condition to be solved, and her fall does not warrant a full scale rescue operation. She just needs some help to get back on the road, and with thanks to Karuna, her dignity emerges intact.
Too often helping organizations send out the message, “We will solve your problems (on our terms).” The message of Alongsiders is, “You have what it takes to succeed already and we'll find it together."
4. Prayer and engagement in life go naturally together.
When confronted with suffering, many people react with the "fight or flight" reflex. "Fighting" may mean trying to fill in for God (in his apparent absence) in order to solve the problem. "Flight" may mean escaping into distraction or a safer place. The alternative, being present in a relationship without easy answers, requires trust in God.
The theme of the story above is the need for discipline and perseverance, but there's a moment when Karuna and Sreymao stop to pray in the midst of all their activity. Such prayer is natural; it's not forced ritual, nor passive resignation, nor an after-thought. It stems from faithful engagement in the realities of life.
In the face of poverty and vulnerabilities and an unknown future, Alongsider mentors don't have many answers. They often have their own daunting problems. If they want to stay on the journey with their little brothers and sisters, they need to trust God, and so they will pray.