Elsa Brule became one of Room to Read’s most ardent supporters after a visit to Laos in 2009. This past summer, she and her husband visited eight of Room to Read’s country offices, including a return to their beloved Laos. Elsa shares the story of her connection to one Laotian girl -- a girl she never met, but who had a powerful effect on her life.
When we left Laos in February of 2009, I wondered if we'd ever return. It had been a momentous trip, and I remembered it fondly every time I passed by the carved Buddha in the foyer or saw the book about Luang Prabang on the coffee table. Occasionally I played the CD of a traditional song we'd heard so often. Just for fun, I would dip and bend my hands to the music, making a "figure eight" in the Laotian way.
And every day, for a solid year and a half, I glanced at two photos that are tucked askew in the letter holder on my desk -- photos of a young girl I do not know.
At the time of our visit, Room to Read had just started working in Oudomxay, the poorest province in Laos. As the field team sorted through a large pile of interviews and pictures of prospective candidates for the Girls’ Education program, the photos of one particular girl troubled Somphet, the Laos country director. The 14-year-old girl, "Souphe" (pronounced Soo-Pee), was standing in front of a home cobbled together of boards and tin. The lonely look on her face was haunting. Somphet sent me the photos as a sampling of what Room to Read was facing now that they were working in this remote area.
I studied the forlorn expression, but tried to comfort myself in the knowledge that she'd qualify for the Girls’ Education Program. Every few months I'd email Somphet for reassurance, but the last email I sent generated a disheartening response.
"What has happened with the young girl in the picture?" I asked.
"She is working in a roadside restaurant. Her father will not let her come to school," she replied. According to the team’s report, “This girl’s father ‘eats drugs.’ She must work to bring money. Her mother is dead. There is a younger brother and sister. The girl has completed 5th grade and the father will not let her continue.” It is compulsory to attend school just until 5th grade, and the team felt helpless.
My heart sank. It just didn't seem right that at 14, this girl's fate was so firmly set.
Somphet was determined to try yet again, using a different strategy. Instead of working on the father, perhaps encouraging the little girl to think for herself might yield a better result. The Room to Read staff gently explained to her that her father wasn't thinking clearly because of the drugs and that it was okay for her to take charge of her own life.
When we arrived in Vientiane last month, 18 months after my first visit, I was thrilled to see Somphet again. We hugged, and within minutes I asked if there had been progress with the young girl. She grinned and exclaimed, "Yes! She is two weeks in the new school year!" We shared a high-five moment.
We had two days crammed with school visits before celebrating Room to Read’s 10th anniversary with the local team. But the night of the celebration, Somphet came to me and handed me a photo. My heart swelled. The photo was of the young girl, now 15, happily and proudly going to school with her new uniform and a new bike. I hope to remember always the way I felt that instant of seeing the picture of her today.
Sometimes we can reach hundreds, even thousands, and sometimes with tenacity, it's just one.
Read more about our Girls’ Education program on our website.