As a young teenager, Kim Sang lived in a tree.
From this lofty residence overlooking the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Sang managed his affairs, working construction during the day and attending school during the night.
Because his parents needed financial assistance, most of his meager salary of 3500 riel a day was sent to them, but the rest he carefully managed and saved. Kim Sang had a dream and that dream fuelled his ambition to improve his life. He determined that he would buy a cart to sell coconuts from.
Eventually he saved enough to buy himself a cart, and because the profit margins were better, he even learned to climb the coconut trees in his bare feet, harvesting the fruit himself to sell. And thus began his years as a coconut boy on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Kim Sang was used to the life of survival. He was born in 1978 to a family of humble vegetable and rice farmers and at a young age was taught the meaning of hard work and contribution. By the time he was 12 years old, Sang entered the world of employment when he hired on with a wealthy landowner on the Vietnam/Cambodia border.
His job required that he guard and protect 1000 elusive ducks, collecting their eggs every morning, “herding” them during the daylight hours, and sleeping in an elevated hut over them at night. However, the monsoons hampered the efficiency of his duck herding efforts because, as Kim Sang related, “you have very little control over ducks that are swimming in the water”. Sang remembers crying many times over his predicament to corral the swimming, web-footed creatures, but because his family depended on his wages, he persevered.
By the time Kim Sang was 16, he had established residency in the Phnom Penh river tree. After buying his cart, he worked long, hard hours collecting and selling coconuts during the day and attending school at night. But Sang wanted more. He dreamt of being like the businessmen that passed him on the street in their shirts and ties. He decided that to get ahead in life he would need more education and to get more education he would need more money.
It was about at this time that Kim Sang’s life took an interesting turn. While selling coconuts on the streets of Phnom Penh, “the crazy Christians on bicycles” would always talk to him, and eventually invited him to attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. After many invitations, Sang decided to go and find out what these young missionaries were so excited about.
He attended the Mormon Church for about a year before he decided to become a member because as Sang related, “I wanted to be converted with my heart not just my mind”.
Kim Sang was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1997 and in 1999 he became one of those “crazy Christians on a bicycle” as the first native Cambodian missionary to serve the people of Cambodia. His family didn’t support his decision, nor did they write him or help him out financially, but “I was committed in my heart”, so instead of being sad and lonely when the other missionaries received mail, Sang would spend the time studying and contemplating his life ahead.
On completing his mission, Kim Sang applied and qualified for the Perpetual Education Fund sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This fund was established by the Mormon Church in 2001 under the leadership of Gordon B. Hinckley, the President of the Church at that time. In an address to the worldwide members of the Church, President Hinckley told of how when many of the young missionaries from poverty stricken areas return to their homelands, they return with high hopes. However, quite a few of them find it difficult to find employment because they have no skills.
“They sink right back into the pit of poverty from which they came. Their future is bleak, indeed.”
In an effort to remedy this situation, The Church established a fund in large part from the contributions of Mormon members called the Perpetual Education Fund. Loans could be made from this fund, to ambitious young people, mainly returned missionaries, allowing them to borrow money to attend school. Once it was determined that they were worthy members (The Church has a high standard of ethics) and in need of help, funds would be issued, payable not to the student, but to the school they would be attending. There would be no temptation in that way for the money to be used for other purposes.
President Hinckley said, “Participation in the program will carry with it no stigma of any kind, but rather a sense of pride in what is happening. It will not be a welfare effort, commendable as those efforts are, rather an education opportunity. The beneficiaries will repay the money, and when they do so, they will enjoy a wonderful sense of freedom, because they have improved their lives not through a grant or gift, but through borrowing and then repaying. They can hold their heads high in a spirit of independence.”
“With good employment skills, these young men and women can rise out of the poverty they and generations before them have known. They will repay their loans to make it possible for others to be blessed as they have been blessed. It will become a revolving fund.”
Through participating in this program, Kim Sang not only received his Bachelor’s Degree, but also his Master’s Degree in business. He now works as a manager of a Service Center in Phnom Penh and is married to his wife, Som Moroda with three children.
The days of selling coconuts from his cart are long behind him,but Kim Sang’s memories of living in poverty continue to fuel his desire to be successful. His dream of living in a real home, owning his own car, supporting a family of his own, and even wearing a suit and tie are now a reality. From coconut boy to successful businessman, with hope for the future, dreams do come true.