Fifty-one percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 24. This is a trend found in numerous developing countries, and some see these disproportionate numbers as a potential problem. Craig Greenfield, however, saw it as a resource when he first began to look for ways to provide support for a large number of families with vulnerable children living in his Cambodian community. In typical Gospel-centered fashion where the unlikely is the likely, God is using those who are often seen as the recipients of development efforts to be the change makers.
The opportunity for youth to come alongside vulnerable children and families is now known as Alongsiders International.
Alongsiders International is an innovative nonprofit that catalyzes movements by partnering with local churches. Together, they equip young people to mentor and disciple orphaned and vulnerable children within their communities. As highlighted in the Faith to Action Initiative’s publication Journeys of Faith, Alongsiders International also finds “local churches are often in the best position to identify and directly minister to those in their communities who are in greatest need” (p 6). Currently, Alongsider movements with these types of partnerships are active in 11 countries across Asia and Africa.
Alongsiders is both the name of the nonprofit and the title donned by the church youth who volunteer to meet weekly with marginalized children in their own community. After a partnership is formed between Alongsiders International and a local church or network of churches, the church is responsible for hiring local coordinators. These coordinators hold vision meetings with youth groups and young adults in local churches to motivate and recruit potential youth mentors between the ages of 16 and 30.
To aid in the vetting process, those who wish to become youth mentors must obtain a signed permission form from their pastor. New youth mentors then attend an orientation where they receive training to guide them in their Alongsider journey. Further, during this orientation, new youth mentors are equipped to recognize and handle situations of abuse they might encounter as an Alongsider. Additional trainings are required throughout their time as a mentor.
The process of committing to a little brother or sister is unique. It relies on what is known in the Alongsider movement as the “principle of proximity.” New youth mentors are encouraged to choose a little brother or sister who lives very close (sometimes as close as 1 kilometer) to their own home. This ensures regular interaction and often means that the youth mentor is already aware of such a child within the neighborhood. The Alongsider is then responsible for gaining the permission of both the child and the child’s parent or guardian. After gaining permission, the pair must report to their local coordinators to be registered on a special Alongsider app before they can officially begin meeting on a weekly basis. Empowering all involved parties—the local churches, youth mentors, and the families—to claim ownership and initiative throughout the entire process propels the family-strengthening and community development elements of the Alongsider movement.
Greenfield believes the relationship formed between the child and his or her Alongsider works to break the power of isolation that often pervades impoverished communities. This is a vital component of how Alongsiders as both a nonprofit and a movement works to walk with children in vulnerable families in providing a unique type of emotional and spiritual care. Not only does that child now have an advocate and support system in an Alongsider, but often the Alongsider also provides an open door to support—both material and spiritual—from a local church. In an independent study comparing children with an Alongsider to those without, 76 percent of those with an Alongsider reported receiving material assistance from a local church, while only 41 percent without an Alongsider reported the same.
Further, in Cambodia, Alongsiders International partners with M’lup Russey, an organization that is active in the movement to transition children out of orphanages and into safe and loving families. Although it is not required that a youth mentor choose one of these children as a little brother or sister, mentors are encouraged to do so. This helps to provide support and a social network to those children and the families who are going through the process of transitioning to family care.
While there are around 600 Alongsiders walking with a little brother or sister in Cambodia, one duo’s story is an excellent representation of what Alongsiders International hopes to accomplish. Monika lost her father at a young age. As the sole provider, Monika’s mother sold items from a small kiosk. From the gate of her own home, Daly regularly noticed Monika walking by, alone and sad. Daly wanted to reach out to her neighbor but didn’t know how. After hearing of Alongsiders International, Daly immediately knew whom she wanted to reach out to as her little sister—Monika. Daly has been walking alongside Monika, encouraging and supporting her, for about three years.
There’s a Cambodian proverb that says “Only a spider can repair its own web.” Alongsiders International both values and practices the meaning of this proverb by empowering often-overlooked youth to walk alongside those families and their children who are most vulnerable. The results are both measurable and immeasurable as numerous children are staying in school longer, attending church, and thriving within their families and communities because of their Alongsiders. The spider is indeed repairing its own web.