LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Seven years ago a chance encounter with a poor, young girl during a backpacking trip through Cambodia changed the life of Hollywood film executive Scott Neeson.
He was on a holiday from his pampered life in California and eating at an outdoor restaurant when a 9-year-old girl came begging for money. The next night she came back, and he knew she would be there the next day and the day after that.
The studio boss asked where she came from and he was directed to the Steung Meanchey trash dump, outside the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, where young kids scavenge for food or items to sell to help them survive.
In no way would the kids ever thrive, he thought, and so Neeson did something to help. He met with the girl’s parents, as well another girl and her parents. He got the kids enrolled in school and provided better housing for their families.
“The whole thing for both families was about $80 per month,” Neeson, 51, told Reuters in a recent interview.
Why help? He said it was mostly because he could, but also because he wanted to change.
“It was the directness of being able to help, being an A-type personality and having control to make those decisions. It was direct, and I never expected it to be so easy,” Neeson said of his first experience with helping children in Cambodia.
Now, the former president of 20th Century Fox’s international film division lives in Cambodia, where he moved six years ago. He runs the Cambodian Children’s Fund, which aims to give children an education and/or job opportunities that will help break out of poverty.
From two girls seven years ago, Neeson’s program now helps some 700 children. It has also extended services for their families and the communities in which they live. The fund provides education, healthcare and job training.
For the first year Neeson continued to hold down his job in Hollywood, traveling roughly once a month to Cambodia to get his organization going.
Many of the children were on their own with no parents to care for them, Neeson said, and within four months, his group was caring for nearly 90 children.
In December 2004, he abandoned his home in Los Angeles, left his boat behind and headed to Phnom Penh to work for the kids. The numbers grew quickly from nearly 90 to 150 as his programs proved successful and he raised money to build facilities.
He cited one example in which it took just six days and the equivalent of $650 to build one housing unit with a concrete floor and swinging hammocks in which to sleep.
“The whole philosophy is to build a community that heads toward self-sufficiency,” he said.
Neeson is quick to talk about success stories. There are two former gang members who are now pastry chefs, a boy now in college studying hotel management and numerous people in jobs ranging from information technology to hair styling.
He is just as fast to note that for kids who spend their youngest years without parents, there are different levels of success. For some, achievements are marked simply by living a structured life and learning skills to make good decisions.
He still walks the trash dumps outside Phnom Penh at night, looking to help those who need it.
But is he happy he traded in a Hollywood life for long days of community service in Cambodia?
“It’s not that simple. There are definitely things I miss. I miss my boat. I miss my dog. But in terms of regrets, there are none at all. If I hadn’t found what I found, I wouldn’t be as content,” he said.
“I think I was looking for it without realizing it ... honestly, I knew I’d do something to help others, I never realized it was such an extreme thing.”
More information on the program can be found at cambodianchildrensfund.org.)
Editing by Patricia Reaney