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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free twice yearly to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

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The girls of summer

Sun Valley Community School graduate Lexi duPont left behind her
privileged lifestyle to work with girls at risk in the slums of Cambodia.Text by
Jon Duval. Photos by Emilie duPont

 Lexi duPont was in an enviable position.

The middle daughter of an affluent family, she had an excellent educationóattending The Community School, a private school in Sun Valley. She was afforded the chance to pursue extracurricular activities usually restricted to the realm of the privileged: ski racing in the winter and sailing in the summer. Like the surrounding mountains that cut off the Wood River Valley from the rest of the world, she enjoyed a protective insulation created by family, teachers and friends.

DuPont is no longer sure sheís in an enviable position.

Sun Valley resident Lexi duPont (top center) and her sister Emilie (far left) worked with young girls at MíLop Tapang, a center for street children in Sihanoukville, all of whom are considered at risk of resorting to prostitution to feed themselves and their families.

These advantages have an inherent caveat: Complacency leads to an absence of self-discovery. This she found out after spending five weeks in Sihanoukville, a city on the southern coast of Cambodia, described by one travel guide as "a charmless town." Alongside the requisite tourist beaches, Sihanoukvilleís primary "attractions" are large trash-covered slums and rampant drug use.

"Here in Sun Valley we donít have real problems," said duPont a month after her return to the United States. "Weíre not worrying about where our next meal is going to come from, worrying if you have AIDS because your parents have AIDS, or have fourĖyearĖolds taking care of babies because their parents are doing drugs."

The paradox of her situation is not lost on the 18-year-old. The absolute dearth of privation in her upbringing is responsible for both her inexperience and the means to her enlightenment.

Large, trash-covered slums litter the streets of
the Cambodian city where duPont spent a summer working with street children.

For her senior project, duPont, accompanied by her sister, Emilie (a 2001 Community School graduate), volunteered at MíLop Tapang, a center for street children in Sihanoukville. The center, founded in 2003 by British traveler Maggie Eno, has an ambitious goal. With approximately two million Cambodians killed by Pol Potís Khmer Rouge during the last half of the 1970s, roughly 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15.

This dramatically imbalanced age demographic, combined with a Third World economy, has led to a dire situation in which children are forced to work and live on the streets to support their families or themselves. Since it opened four years ago with four children, MíLop Tapang has grown to serve 600. Children aged two to 18 attend.

Her duties included manning the MíLop Tapang centerís mobile library (bottom left) as she visited small villages outside of Sihanoukville.

During duPontís stay, her tasks ranged from teaching English to passing out books from a mobile library as she visited small villages outside the city. However, the true revelations came when working with girls at riskóa group of five girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who face the daily temptation of turning to prostitution.

Because the girls help support their families, it is a continual struggle to keep them off the street. At the center, they create clothing and accessories to sell to tourists, earning $15 a month. While this seems a preferable alternative to entering the sex trade, itís impossible to deny the lure of the red-light district, where employment can garner $15 a night.

Because only one of the five could speak any English, duPont had to find a way around both culture and language barriers. "We tried to change their outlooks by helping them have fun and realize they can still be kids instead of working all the time," said duPont, sitting in the sun outside a Ketchum coffee shop, her face still dark from the intense tropical sun. "We were the first people to spend a lot of time with them, not as teachers, but as friends."

Despite the uplifting fact that the girls continued to return to the center day after day, duPont harbored no delusions about the opportunities available to them. Their naÔvetť saddened her. "When you ask them what they want to be and they say doctor or teacher, youíre supposed to inspire them to reach that goal. But itís hard considering they arenít able to read or write. Itís hard to convince them that they have a chance for a better life, when you can hardly convince yourself that they have a chance."

DuPont plans to return to Sihanoukville next summer, after her first year of college. However, she will not see the girls from the program again; they are allowed only six more months there. Their final farewell was heartbreaking because she knew it was just thatófinal.

While she is uncertain of her impact on the girls, and if it will have any lasting effect, duPont is well aware of the lessons they imparted. "They were smiling all the time even though they have nothing. I realized how happy you can be with nothing, living only on the necessities."

Back in Sun Valley, duPont readies herself for Endicott, a small, private school in Massachusetts, and is excited for the chance to sail competitively against the likes of Harvard. She admits that the powerful emotion she felt during her first week home has become diluted by the flow of regular life. But others who know her noticed a distinct change.

"The experience helped her understand her privilege and the responsibilities that come with being born into a family that values education and service," said Ryan Waterfield, duPontís English teacher. "Lexiís world-view has shifted and I donít imagine sheíll take her position in this world for granted again."