PSE For a Child's Smile - From destitution... to a vocation!

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Lyheang Heng: from selling on the street to working in a 5-star hotel

Lyheang Heng is a coordinator this year for PSE’s Teenager summer continuity programme in Phnom Penh. The job could not be better suited as some of the teenagers taking part have had the same impoverished and rough background as him. He is and will always be an inspiration for the Cambodian youth who has grown up without dreams of a good job or hope for a descent future.

“When I was a child, I wasn’t working in the dumpsites but had a similar job. I was finding plastics and cans to sell on the street”

From the street to the classroom

When Lyheang Heng was 11 years old, he was living in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and selling scraps of material he found on the street. This was the only way he could contribute to family earnings; a family that didn’t have much money to begin with.

As he was working in the Olympic market in Phnom Penh, selling whatever he found, the PSE Social team arrived. Their job is to find kids in need of help; kids who are too young to work, abused and neglected or too poor and living in terrible conditions.

“I became part of the PSE family”

He told them he wanted to study and one week later he was in school. He was given rice compensation for the earnings lost now that he was no longer working. His life brightened up, he was finally starting to feel like a normal child although his upbringing was having a deep effect on his motivation for studying. “I just enjoyed myself in the street playing around. I didn’t take the grades seriously” he says. When he turned 17, PSE took him in as a student, which marked the beginning of a new, positive chapter for Lyheang.

Environments shapes you

“When I joined PSE, I was so embarrassed and shy because everyone was studying so hard and I didn’t care about studying at that time”

The fact of growing up in a disadvantaged environment; one where no one around you has incentive for a better future because that idea is so far from their reality, has a deep effect on what you consider possible in life. Lyheang grew up in an uneducated family, unable to grow or learn when he got the chance, but that quickly started to change once he joined PSE.

“ I wanted to do something for myself and I stopped playing around”

The NGO aims to provide a safe and stable educational environment throughout the year for the children in need of the most help. “The best education for the poorest children” is a slogan repeated regularly by co-founder and President of PSE Madrid, Marisa Caprile. Lyheang found himself surrounded by students who wanted to thrive and who realised they were given an incredible chance at a better life.

“ A lot of the time I wanted to find my friends, but I wanted to find myself more, to be focused.”

The troublemaker turned into a positive competitor. Competing with himself to get the best grades and be top of his class. One year after joining the PSE school, he was number two in French class and number one in general knowledge class. Becoming increasingly curious about everything and anything!

From good grades to quality skills

Lyheang recounts a beautiful moment with his mother. He explains that since she had no time or means to study when she was younger, she didn’t understand the value and use of good grade.

“She would look at me without understanding. I had to explain to her that if I had good grades, that’s a good thing!”

When his mother realised he was thriving at school and was probably going to have a better life then she would be able to offer him, she was extremely proud of him. His brother and two sisters also joined the PSE school, leading to happiness and goals for the future of his family.

“PSE gives you the direction and the orientation for your skills. Without PSE, nothing would have been possible”

After passing preparatory class, Lyheang continued to the next step: skills class, where he specialised in vocational training for two years. “I am friendly, I am hard working, so I went to hotel school” he says smiling. He graduated in 2014, with full points and no bad discipline. He remembers how inspirational the teachers were, saying that they really made him reach his potential through positive teaching methods and making him believe in himself. Papi and Mami, a nickname for the founders of PSE: Christian and Marie-France des Pallières, were also an incredible driving force for the students.

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“They gave great motivational speeches and always reached out and got to know the students”

At 22, Lyheang left PSE with a vocational training diploma and started the new chapter in his life: working.

In charge and thriving

It took Lyheang some adjustment to apply the skills learned in class to the ruthless world of work. After working in different establishments as a bartender, he climbed up the ropes, constantly learning and improving his skills. Now, he works as a leading barman in one of the top 10 hotels worldwide, the 5 star Rosewood Phnom Penh Hotel. He explains proudly what the skills consist of,

“There is grooming and hygiene, glassware, bar skills, ice, how to develop your skills and finally cocktail training.”

He has attended bartending events to share his cocktail making skills and has won three competitions. The first: A Malaysian competition for cocktail making, where he went to the final. He then won gold medal at the National Cambodian Hospitality Competition for bartending and lastly won a Barista competition for coffee making, which brought him to South Korea for the final. What a journey and what an accomplishment!

“Without PSE, maybe now I would be a manager on the street, not in a bar”

Lyheang constantly mentions how grateful he is for PSE’s selfless effort towards transforming kids’ lives and giving them positive future prospects. What he discovered during his years at PSE is that the new generation needs to be given more opportunities, confidence and useful skills that they can apply to a good job.

Dreams for the future

“What you can do when you have a good life is not feel like you have to pay us back. Just please don’t forget us and don’t forget PSE”
Christian and Marie-France des Pallières

Lyheang has many things he would like to accomplish in the future. His eyes glisten as he describes three dreams for the years to come. Firstly, he would like to become a certified bartender and go work in America. A dream likely to come true due to the help of Steven Slaughter, an American businessman who owns 4 hotels in the USA, and who met Lyheang whilst doing volunteer work here in Phnom Penh.

“ I want to give back from my heart and not ask PSE for anything in return”

Secondly, he would like to come back to Cambodia to share his knowledge and skills to students from PSE and other NGOs. A dream he has already begun after coming to work as a monitor for the PSE continuity programme in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, he took on more responsibility by becoming a coordinator and this year, is also coordinating the teenager sub-programme for a week. He tells his students:

“When you finish your training at PSE, you are not professionals yet. But you are ready to become professionals”

Lyheang Heng is a thriving, young professional. A life which begun on the street has flourished into a life full of possibilities and accomplishments. Lyheang Heng is a positive, strong and happy young man. His hardworking and optimistic take on life wouldn’t exist without PSE’s passion and support. Qualities adopted by Heng himself, and qualities he wishes to pass on to future generation.