“I chose her because I want her to be smart, and I want her to be brave.” (Matha, an Alongsider)
That's wisdom from a 17 year old Alongsider in rural Cambodia. Her name is Matha. Her chosen little sister, Esara, is nine, and we're sitting together in the shade of a wooden home.
Matha is not desperately poor, I suppose, because she arrived at our meeting on a small motocycle. But it's safe to say she doesn't have much to offer Esara in the way of money or material resources. Fortunately, this sets Matha free to look beyond what she can provide in order to see the resources Esara has within herself. She believes that - with some support - Esara can solve her own problems. But it's important for her to be smart and brave.
Why smart? Because Esara must choose well.
Going to school will be a choice. Studying at home and learning will be a choice. Having good relationships will be a choice. Many of Esara's peers, will drop out of school and go to work in factories. They will be drawn by a low salary (that looks large to a young person from the countryside), and they will find themselves stuck in a rut that's hard to escape. Some will make compromises and fall into bad marriages; some will be single mothers. Along the way, forces in society will pressure and mislead Esara, and she won't get much help from her teachers. Even so, there will be opportunities for her, if she pushes herself to learn, thinks clearly, and stays on track.
Why brave? Because Esara feels vulnerable, and rightly so.
"I always see her alone," says Matha. "Her family doesn't seem to love her very much. They always go to the market and leave her at home."
Esara has problems relating with her older sisters. Her father, who apparently does care for her, stays away from home working five or six days per week. As Matha explains, Esara's eyes turn red and she begins to wipe away tears. Most families in Esara's community are economically poor, but vulnerability means more than just a lack of material resources.
But Matha is on to something. Increasing courage in children and youth is right at the heart of the vision of Alongsiders.
According to positive psychologists, increasing courage is a key to increasing a child's resilience. Resilience is the God-given ability to overcome adversity. So courage - or to "be brave" - can change the life of a vulnerable child.
Alongsider relationships nurture four characteristics in children and youth that increase their courage and, therefore, their resiliency. (And in case it's not clear below, "being smart" neatly sums up items 2-4.)
- Belonging (through relationship with an Alongsider and improving relationships with God, family, and others in the community)
- Mastery (through discipleship, education, and problem solving)
- Independence (through growing in responsibility and life skills)
- Generosity (through serving and becoming an Alongsider for someone else)
It's worth adding one more note about courage. "Do not be afraid" / "Fear not" is the most repeated phrase in the Bible. In scripture fearful people reject Jesus and his ways, but people with courage follow him and love one another.
"Do you want to be brave?" I ask.
Esara says, "Yes."
"Can she help you?"
"Yes," she replies.
Esara is a small package, but the greatest resources she can count on are already, by God's grace, either within her or accessible to her in relationships.
But she needs courage: to be smart and brave.
And love is showing her the way.