Viliem was struggling. Her grades, usually average, had dropped to the bottom of the class. She found herself, as just a young girl, dealing with depression. And who could blame her? Her previously single-parent home had turned into a no-parent home when her mom left her and her siblings with their grandparents, seldom making any kind of contact. Middle school can be hard enough without having to process this kind of grief while raising your younger siblings. She was a bright girl whose potential was clouded by circumstances no pre-teen should have to face.
But thankfully Viliem was not alone. Her grandparents, although struggling themselves to make a living and maintain their health, cared for Viliem and did not want her previous losses to hold her back from the life they wanted for her. It was around this time that Viliem joined Room to Read’s Girls Education program through her secondary school in the Oudomxay province of Laos. The program provides mentoring as well as academic support because success in education and life requires more than just schoolroom knowledge and academic strength. It also requires strength of character, confidence, and the ability to cope with challenges and setbacks.
Through the “Life Skills” classes and mentoring of her social mobilizer (A social mobilizer is equal parts teacher, advocate and counselor who delivers the life skills curriculum, conducts home visits, monitors attendance and whatever else it takes to ensure each girl can thrive in school.) Viliem found the support she needed to come alive again. “In life skills training, we always have to speak our ideas in the group. So now I am braver to answer questions in the class.” With her growing confidence has come growing ambition, “I am just very greedy trying to get one or two more extra scores,” she says with a smile.
In many ways, life remains difficult for Viliem. Every morning she must rise early enough to water the garden and do the cooking and cleaning before getting two of her younger siblings ready for school. Her grandparents take the youngest boy with them as they spend the full day working on farms to try to earn a living.
Although still shouldering far more responsibility than the average 12 year old, Viliem’s outlook has changed. “I do not feel burdened to look after them,” she says. “They also like to be around me and help out some small chores. My two sisters love being my cooking assistants, especially, when I made my specialty dish, stir fry cabbage. They said they like it!” This kind of cheerful optimism has become one of her most defining qualities. “Viliem has an incredibly optimistic mindset to tell herself that everything will turn out well as long as her family is there with her,” says social mobilizer Viengkham Khounachack proudly. As Viliem’s Girls’ Education program social mobilizer, Viengkham has been a part of helping her find ways to cope and gain confidence.
One thing that Viliem says she finds soothing is reading poetry. Viliem loves reading poems from the book her grandfather gave her. She says that the beautiful words, sounds and touching lyrics harmonize her mind. Her grandfather read to her when she was little. Now she reads to her younger sisters and brother every evening.
More ambitious than ever, Viliem is now determined to become a doctor (and to become a doctor that writes and publishes poetry no less!) “No matter what happens, I will study hard to be a doctor so that grandma and grandpa can be certain that I will always be there to help them whenever they get sick,” she says. “I want them to be there when I become a doctor.”