Nine year old Sita* was severely shaken as a baby, leading to brain damage. When she was two years old, her mother brought her to a center in Kampot that supports parents who are raising mentally disabled children.
Her mother abandoned Sita there.
Testing revealed the left side of Sita's brain had shrunken to a fraction of normal size. She couldn't taste or smell or talk, and the doctors said there was little hope she would ever walk either. They were surprised she had lived so long.
Against the odds, today Sita has learned to taste, smell, talk, walk and play on her own.
Surprisingly, more recent testing shows the right side of her brain has actually grown to take up space as the left side of her brain receded.
Sita's story is inspiring, but it's not as unique as you may think.
Many stories testify to the ability of children to recover from even the most devastating circumstances. Children have an astounding bounce-back-ability - also known as Resilience.
Resilience is a God-given human ability to recover from physical, psychological, and emotional trauma. It's the "wow" factor in stories of survival and overcoming the odds.
And every child has it!
Sita's story illustrates something important at the heart of the Alongsiders movement.
Children growing up in material poverty face all kinds of challenges from malnutrition and neglect, to sickness and abuse. These range from mild setbacks to severely debilitating ones.
Think of what the term "crushing poverty" implies: impossible burdens, lack of hope, and real damage. Yet many children rise up out of the most difficult situations to lead full and productive lives.
That is the miracle of Resilience.
One of the core goals of Alongsiders is to increase resilience in the little brothers and sisters in our movement and thus improve their chances of overcoming their own challenging circumstances.
Yet, the principles we draw on are useful for every parent, and any person working with children.
The Circle of Courage identifies four "universal needs" of children that, when met, increase resilience in children. The four needs are Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity.
Everything that an Alongsider mentor does with their little brother or sister helps strengthen these four areas. And that loving relationship is bolstered by our three year comic book curriculum which is designed to address different aspects of these four needs:
Every child has a deep yearning to know they are accepted and appreciated, that they are part of a loving family and a welcoming wider community. If they can’t find that in a healthy group, they will join a gang or other dysfunctional community in order to meet that need. Rather than simply warn children against gangs, we seek to address the deeper need for connectedness by helping children to stay and thrive in their own families and communities with their Alongsiders and the local church who walk with them. Comic book topics related to Belonging include lessons on forgiveness and resolving conflicts.
Every child needs to learn how to solve problems and take steps to achieve goals. They need the encouragement of achieving small successes. Through these ordinary breakthroughs, they find motivation and develop confidence. Alongsiders encourage their little brothers to stay in school, a proven route out of poverty, and they have important conversations about future goals and direction. Some lessons that relate to this need are our lessons on perseverance, servant leadership, and discipleship.
Children also need to learn responsibility, autonomy and self-control in order to grow into healthy adults. The greatest forms of responsibility and self-control are not based on fear or obligation, but on love. With shortcuts and corruption all around, Alongsider mentors are themselves powerful models of responsibility in action as they choose to commit their lives to their little brothers and sisters and then follow through. Comic book lessons that build this area include our lessons on decision-making, courage, and setting goals.
Children long for purpose, but children who lack an innate sense of value will be too focused on their own needs to show generous concern for others. Alongsiders see the value in their little brothers and sisters and then give generously to them (of their time and commitment) in love. They invite their little brothers and sisters to grow up and do the same for others, not as an obligation but as an opportunity. Comic book lessons that build this area include our lessons on gratitude, service, and how to become an Alongsider.
Step-by-step over time, building up children in these four areas nurtures their God-given resilience so they can "rewire" their thinking and lead transformed lives that defy expectations.
And that is how kids defy the odds and bounce back - from the most incredible obstacles and suffering.
(*Sita's name has been changed for privacy)