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.”

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