“Spider!” screamed Ryan.
A man terrified of spiders is entertaining enough, but the fact that said man was a 6-foot-5-inch blonde giant only amplified the hilarity. Ryan Childress and I were 15 at the time, had known each other for years and were practically family, which became official two years later when his sister married my brother. Ironically, we sealed our fate as a family when I caught the bouquet and he caught the garter.
As Ryan bounded to the other side of the kitchen, terrified of the tiny insect, I doubled over laughing. It was so typical of the goofy and often whiny Ryan. Preppy, middle class, white kid who refused to wear anything but American Eagle clothes.
If you had told me then that eight years later that same gentle giant would be spending his days driving around on tuk-tuks, working to rescue young men from the Cambodia sex slave trade while eating bugs as a daily snack, I would’ve said you were crazy.
But a little over a year ago, everything changed. As Ryan and I hiked through a mosquito-laden forest, he described his recent scouting trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, only the intense fire in his eyes. I watched as he lit up with excitement, explaining how the Khmer people needed someone with an entrepreneurship background to manage a program that would help get men out of brothels.
The goal was to teach these men English and train them to be tours guides for westerners, as an alternative to being a prostitute for a living. As he shared, I stared at him, not recognizing the man in front of me.
The Ryan I knew was attached to status and security, didn’t have any real passion and lacked a dream worth fighting for. This new Ryan was fervent, focused and actually thrilled by the prospect of giving up his comfortable suburban life to live in a place where most of us would be afraid to park.
Today he is the Punlok Thmey Tours business manager at The Hard Places Community, where he daily lives out their mission: “Bring hope to the hopeless in the darkest corners of this world.”
Even other friends have noticed the change.
“He is a total local celebrity. Driving through town absolutely everyone shouts hello,” Jim Bailey said after watching Ryan work recently. “He parts the crowds with his blonde hair and his height. And Anna, oh how they love him. They can sense that it is the passion and mission of his life to restore their dignity.”
Because the Khmer people don’t have an “R” sound in their language, their “R” sounds more like “L”. So when Ryan moved there, he became known as Lion. It’s appropriate, seeing as the man who once screamed at the sight of spiders now eats them.
Ryan’s transformation inspires me to bring hope to the hopeless. I invite you to be part of the story. Sign up for Walk Against Traffick, a 5K fundraiser to end sexual slavery happening April 26 in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. At the very least, find a volunteer opportunity around you.
Be like Ryan the Lion and fear nothing.