Barista in the morning, environmental activist after work. That’s a daily life of Ms Earth New Zealand 2016 and Tauranga local Lin Keo.

Cam­bo­di­an born Lin Keo is one of those locals who needs no intro­duc­tion. If you’ve been to The Dry Dock Café at The Strand, you’ve prob­a­bly already been charmed by her beau­ti­ful smile, bub­bly per­son­al­i­ty and lat­te art skills. “Work­ing in a café is like being on a date with lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple. My job makes me an impor­tant part of their life. I see famil­iar faces every­day. Some of them smile to me, some of them shout at me. But they always apol­o­gise and buy me cof­fee after­wards. We all have bad days and if I can help by lis­ten­ing, it makes me hap­py,” says Lin.

She is a full-time baris­ta six days per week. Her only day off is secured for hang­ing out with her son, and car­ing about the world we live in. Lin is involved in all the envi­ron­men­tal activ­i­ties at the Bay you can pos­si­bly think of: clean­ing the parks and beach­es, plant­i­ng trees. “I roll up my sleeves, get down on my knees and pick up all the rub­bish on the beach. And I real­ly enjoy it. Because if we live health­ily, we live longer.”

Lin dis­cov­ered her pas­sion while com­pet­ing in an annu­al Miss Earth beau­ty pageant last year. She was crowned Ms Earth New Zealand, and rep­re­sent­ed our coun­try on an inter­na­tion­al lev­el in Las Veg­as, USA. There are three cat­e­gories in this com­pe­ti­tion. Miss Earth is for 16–29 years old girls, to com­pete in Ms Earth, like Lin, you have to be divorced or over 30 years old, and Mrs Earth is for mar­ried wom­an of any age. “Beau­ty pageants are not always about the way you look or your age. My friend, Mrs Earth Aus­tralia, is 55 and she won in Veg­as!” The event is known for pro­mot­ing envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness.

When it comes to com­pe­ti­tion, all the dress­es, sparkles and glit­ter are for­got­ten. Every­thing Lin talks about is how amazed she was by the water stor­age sys­tem used in the mid­dle of the desert, and how inspir­ing it was to see Veg­as kids being taught to grow plants since a young age.

Lin her­self nev­er had that oppor­tu­ni­ty. “I was born and raised on the Cam­bo­di­an streets. My mum was a house­keep­er for pros­ti­tutes and my dad was a sol­dier. They were not allowed to get mar­ried and he died at war before I was born. For the first six years of my life I slept under the stairs of the butcher shop with­out any blan­ket or even clothes. I was starv­ing. I was beat­en by peo­ple, and bit­ten by dogs. I still have the scars, remind­ing me of where I came from.”

Things changed when an Amer­i­can called Tim picked Lin up and brought her to the hos­pi­tal of the Amer­i­can embassy. He lat­er adopt­ed her and became a car­ing and lov­ing dad for Lin and her six sis­ters. That’s prob­a­bly when Lin’s dream of being a beau­ty queen was born: “Grow­ing up in a fam­i­ly of sev­en girls, we had lots of beau­ty com­pe­ti­tions between our­selves every day. My sis­ters kept on say­ing I will make it into a real one one day.” Though they all live in dif­fer­ent parts of the world now, they keep in con­tact and sup­port each oth­er. And what about Tim? He works as a radio sta­tion man­ager in Cam­bo­dia. “He is very hap­py. I just talked to him yes­ter­day,” says Lin.

Pho­to: Dave Bradley

This lady went through thick and thin. The dif­fi­cul­ties she faced left some scars. Not only phys­i­cal­ly, but also men­tal­ly. “Peo­ple say, I’m dif­fer­ent, I have shad­ows. That is the lega­cy of my child­hood. I was abused so bad­ly, that I have prob­lems with speak­ing as an adult. Every morn­ing I do tongue exer­cis­es to pro­nounce words prop­er­ly dur­ing the day.”

But her past didn’t break her. “I’m build­ing my life the way I want it to be. Com­pet­ing in pageantries, doing social work, work­ing as a baris­ta and meet­ing kind peo­ple — I’m pick­ing up on what was miss­ing in my life. I have so much to give and I don’t want to hide any­more. Your back­ground doesn’t define you. No mat­ter where you came from or what you went through. Who you are now is all that mat­ters. What you can do for oth­ers is all that mat­ters. I am free to do what I want and I am enjoy­ing it.”

Among oth­er things, Ms Earth New Zealand enjoys foot­ball with her son, box­ing, chill­ing with friends at Fern­land Spa in Beth­le­hem and read­ing. “The best me-time is going to Tau­ran­ga City Library. I love cook­books, and  read­ing about food.”

Before leav­ing The Dry Dock with my com­pul­so­ry soy flat white, served by Lin the oth­er morn­ing, I asked what would she rec­om­mend to girls going through a tough time. “Just keep it pos­i­tive. Keep it sim­ple. Start with you. Ask your­self some vital ques­tions — why am I doing that? Does that feel right? Who am I? Nev­er go again­st your intu­ition, believe in your­self and don’t let oth­ers’ judge­ments stop you.”