She has a winning smile, but Kheing Ly (13) has dealt with more and heavier challenges than most girls her age.
Being the daughter of a policeman in Cambodia has some advantages, like a stable income and a bit of respect in the community. Locals observing at a distance might even say Kheing is lucky in this way. But Kheing's father and mother fight whenever he is around, which is less and less, and Kheing has absorbed an unhealthy portion of their anger and verbal abuse.
Kheing hurts in other less hidden ways. For one thing, she suffers from exotropia, what many call being cross-eyed. Her eyes don't align properly. The condition affects her focus and depth perception, and it gives her an awkward appearance.
When I met Kheing for the first time, at the Alongsiders annual camp last November, I noticed that she didn't want to be in pictures. Every time I pointed my camera at her she looked upset, so I stopped (except when her friends pulled her into group shots). Later, when I was looking at my photos, I saw that she always posed with a peace sign in front of her face that covered up her wandering eye.
Even so Kheing was always with her Alongsider and her group of friends. Just a normal kid with problems, like all the other kids there.
But there was something I didn't know about Kheing until a few days ago when I visited her group of Alongiders at their church in Kampong Saom.
The church has about ten Alongsiders, and five of them had gathered to meet me. Kheing was surrounded by other little sisters, and her Alongsider, Paektra (21), sat next to her. Kheing was nervous but still smiling when I asked her my first question. Paektra looked straight at her, face-to-face, and repeated my words along with gestures until Kheing understood. And that's when I learned that Kheing is deaf.
As you might imagine, there are limited services and resources for a deaf child in Cambodia. Deaf children are likely to be sent away or hidden and isolated. Ordinary Cambodians are not used to relating with them, or with people who have disabilities in general.
But here was Kheing and a crowd of peers talking and miming and doing whatever it took for them to relate.
She can read lips - a little. She's fortunate that there is a school for the deaf in Kampong Saom where she has been learning the lip reading as well as sign language.
Paektra asked Kheing to be her little sister just over a year ago, because she could see that Kheing really needed someone. "The other children would pick on her and call her names when she went down the street," says Paektra, "and she was always alone."
Paektra lives in Kheing's neighborhood, so they see each other almost every day. When they get together they ride bicycles, take walks, read the latest Alongsider comic, or go to the beach. Sometimes they pray, which Kheing acknowledges with her face turning red and a smile.
Later Paektra explains that the neighborhood kids don't pick on Kheing so much anymore. "I taught them how to treat her," she says. "They didn't know." So often the difference between being excluded or included is having a respected person stand up for you.
Kheing doesn't attend the Sunday church service. She can't understand the sermons, and the church is located in a different community. But Paektra is a living sermon, showing the way of Jesus to Kheing and bringing "church" to Kheing whenever they meet. "For where two or three are gathered in my name," says Jesus, "there am I among them."
The stories here, about Alongsiders and their little brothers and sisters, are beginning to show familiar patterns: loneliness and isolation overcome, encouragement and love given, courage and resilience gained, and the power of relationships in action. Perhaps the stories are becoming more "ordinary" with repetition, but I never get tired of them.
Shane Claiborne is an American Christian activist who challenges us, by word and example, to stand with people who are marginalized in society. He calls out Christians to follow Jesus as "ordinary radicals." To be radical, he says, is the ordinary state of one who is following Jesus. Ordinary people following Jesus change lives and change the world around them through their love in relationships.
Paektra and many of the Alongsiders I've met are ordinary radicals.
It doesn't take special people to change the world, just ordinary ones who love others in the way Jesus taught and showed us.
What if that kind of love was the new ordinary for you?