Discarded himself. Phea knows the value of things others see fit to discard.
Every day he took to the streets with a rice sack slung over his shoulder looking for rubbish that he could sell: plastic bottles, cardboard, cans, scrap metal, or broken items that could be repaired.
Some called him names as he made his rounds. Others physically accosted him. They didn't see value of a kid in tattered clothes sifting through the garbage.
One day as he worked he came across a group of excited children and youth. They were Alongsider mentors with their little brothers and sisters waiting for transportation to the annual Alongsiders camp. Phea saw that some were neighbors, not unlike himself, and he asked if he could go with them. They said he had to have an Alongsider mentor, and it was too late for that. But someone invited him to the local church to learn more.
Phea went to the church. He says, "I never got my own Alongsider - I was too old. But instead I found faith." So, he kept attending the church, and when he turned 18 he applied to become an Alongsider mentor himself.
As his little brother, Phea chose a boy named Virek who had sometimes accompanied him collecting rubbish to sell. Virek's father died years ago, and his mother is living with a terminal illness. In addition to being very poor, even compared to other families in the slum, her sickness casts a stigma over her and her children. They stay with Virek's grandmother just up the alley from where Phea lives.
Having faced rejection, Phea knew Virek needed encouragement. Just around the corner from Virek's home is an Internet cafe where some boys gather who have dropped out of school. They work the streets a few hours each day and spend what money they earn or steal on video games, alcohol, and other diversions.
Life is hard in the slum, but it's most dangerous when youth lose hope and stop trying.
Through Phea's friendship and support, Virek returned to school. Now he is studying in the eighth grade. Though it's uncomfortable for him to talk about the future, he thinks about becoming a teacher.
So who really connects with the poorest of the poor?
Foreign workers, volunteers, and organizations are almost always on the outside looking in. Even local organizations are located, funded, and led from outside the places where the poorest of the poor live.
Virek is sensitive and reserved. His emotions are hidden. He's vulnerable and knows it. His story comes out slowly in two or three word phrases. I can imagine a foreign worker or volunteer being drawn to Virek, trying to unearth his mysteries, and coaxing out a smile or two.
Phea knows what goes on behind the smile. He knows the hurt. He connects deeply with Virek because he is alongside of Virek in every way.
Here at Alongsiders we say, "It takes a spider to repair it's own web."
The poorest of the poor are uniquely situated to connect with and support each other. They "get it" where others don't.
Sadly, there are divisions among the poor themselves: fault lines of mistrust, power, and fear. So the poor often feel alone and isolated even in their own communities.
Alongsider mentors like Phea are crossing those lines.
They connect with the poorest of the poor.
And they are not just connecting with their little brothers and sisters. They are connecting with families and building bridges of trust within their communities so that others can follow.