Passion Points: Giving Back
A decade ago, Scott Neeson was a top Hollywood executive, with a high-powered job at 20th Century Fox—and the lifestyle to match. Between positions at Fox and Sony, the Scotland-born, Australian-raised Neeson decided to take a rare vacation backpacking through Southeast Asia. He had no idea that the trip was going to change his life.
While in Cambodia, Neeson happened by chance upon the notorious (now closed) Steung Meanchey garbage dump, in Phnom Penh. About 1,000 impoverished children live in shocking squalor in this place, scavenging amidst twenty-seven acres of toxic putrid rubbish. “Standing on the garbage dump that day, seeing the most dire suffering I hope to ever see, I knew that I could do something about this,” says Neeson, who within a year gave up his job and sold his mansion, Porsche and yacht in order to move to Phnom Penh and establish the Cambodian Children’s Fund (www.cambodianchildrensfund.org).
The non-profit organization provides shelter, food, education, medical care and vocational training to Cambodia’s poorest children, plus it sponsors an array of outreach community services. More than 700 children have been helped by the CCF so far, and Neeson continues to be involved in a totally hands-on, everyday fashion. One Cambodian child told a reporter in a televised interview: “He would save the world if he could.” But Neeson is the first to admit that in many ways Cambodia has saved him. Says the founder of this inspiring non-profit: “The personal changes have been absolute and profound. Oddly, I have become less cynical about the human race and more understanding of the basic human needs. The experiences here are so extreme, both in tragedy and joy, that a lifetime’s worth of emotional bandwidth can be expended within a week.” Neeson spoke to Indagare’s Elena Bowes about his work and his hope for the future.
What led you to Cambodia in the first place?
I came to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat with no intention of spending time in Phnom Penh, which I considered a stop-over on the way to see the temples. I never expected to be so drawn to the city, to the people or to the social issues. Photography was a passion in the early days, it then evolved to become cathartic.
One of my earliest photos was of a girl left on the garbage dump by her father and living under the house of some wretched woman, who took half the earnings from girl’s scavenging. The girl was nine-years old, had never studied, and despite the squalor and sickness, she retained a light that made her seemingly impervious to the worst the world could throw at her. Even back then, in 2004, I knew she would be okay. She is sixteen now and studying in ninth grade. She is smart, sensitive, and I know she will help make the world a better place. Each evening, she returns to the garbage dump to teach English to those still living there. To her, it’s the natural order of things.
Can you describe what happened to you during this trip and how you were inspired to launch the CCF?
It’s hard to describe the main motivation for such a drastic change. Like many people, I had long rationalized that such human catastrophes were too large to be solved, that my contribution to such a vast sea of suffering wouldn’t count. I also had a degree of skepticism about what portion of my money would actually get to those who needed it. But standing in front of this apocalyptic horror, there was nothing that separated me from these children that so badly needed help. There was simply no one else. It was black-and-white: do I choose to help these children or do I turn my back and walk away?
It took this shocking experience to fully understand that as conscious beings we are bound by a responsibility to help others. I understand the perceptions of those in comparative luxury that one person cannot make a difference when the problems are so vast. That’s why I want to minimize the degree of separation between donor and beneficiary. I want the donor to see who and how the money is helping, ideally to be in contact with the beneficiary directly. This understanding and empathy of helping a child living in dire poverty is the basis of our sponsorship program.
What are the challenges of your work?
From a personal perspective, I find the emotional strain hard. I tend to internalize the most traumatic experiences. I recently met a young girl who at age three was doused in acid, an act of revenge against the mother. The sadness, the brutality and the utter pointlessness of such an act is hard to process. But here in Cambodia, dealing with such emotional rawness day-in, day-out, also delivers a staggering degree of clarity. I believe that empathy is the highest form of human emotion. Empathy is fast disappearing in the developed countries and seen as an unaffordable luxury in the developing world. I understand the desire by so many in the West to add meaning to their lives, but I don’t understand the reluctance to seize the opportunity.
Can you describe a typical day?
There really are no “typical” days, but there are routines. With the increase in our programs and the number of children we serve, there is a greater need for funding. That requires more time on the road and much more time on e-mail. It’s important for me to keep direct contact with those that were with me at the outset, those who have given based on trust alone and those who support us through good times and bad. Spending time at our facilities, with the kids and families and maintaining visits to the most impoverished areas is also a priority. To be truly effective and relevant, it is essential to have first-hand experience. It’s the reason I’m here.
Do you feel personally responsible for CCF?
Bringing in funds is essential, and the price of failure is too dire to contemplate. We have more than 600 children who have left lives of suffering, abuse, neglect and abandonment. I have done everything I can to ensure they feel safe, to believe that the worst is behind them and that we will always be here for them. Fulfilling that promise is an unrelenting task. People who have the means and every reason to help, often don’t. Then there are those who give from their heart, as individuals, as foundations and organizations.
What are some of the most joyful and frustrating elements of your job?
A most joyful moment is watching a child thrive in our educational program before realizing that this is the homeless or sick or orphaned child I found living under a house not too long ago. A child who had never studied and lived in abject squalor. The turn-around is miraculous, and it’s an honor to be part of that. Frustrations are rare these days. I’m as driven as I was when I first arrived but I now understand I’m more effective if I work within the natural order of things and avoid judging situations and people.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in Cambodia?
The country is still hampered by institutionalized corruption. For it to grow and prosper, there needs to be a quantum leap in the level of governance and transparency. Learning to work within the community, with the local teachers, police and doctors is the most effective route to provide aid.
I have also come to believe that every aid organization should have an exit plan. The ultimate goal of a charity should be to make itself redundant, to bring about whatever change is required so that external aid is no longer required. It may be the eradication of a disease, bringing about human rights or working with inner city youth. The tenet of working toward a completed mission is key, otherwise there is the danger of being in business simply to perpetuate one’s own position and function.
As an ex-Hollywood executive, what are your thoughts on celebrities attaching themselves to a specific cause?
Hollywood stars can bring attention to a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed. George Clooney visited the Sudan and made America aware of the suffering there. Without Clooney, Sudan wouldn’t be more than a fleeting thought. Some people feel such public acts are self-serving and done for publicity. That’s cynical and it’s wrong. Clooney doesn’t need any more publicity, and he can stay in the comforts of Hollywood or Lake Cuomo and still be loved. As one who has every reason to be cynical of Hollywood, I don’t doubt for a moment that his motivations were sincere. The downside of celebrity attachments is the risk that the general public feels less responsible. There is often an assumption that celebrity support brings funds and fixes; that is rarely the real case. CCF does not have paid associations, where an organization pays significant amounts for a celebrity attachment. We have the support of Heather Graham, who aside from being a wonderful spokesperson, is a frequent visitor, actively sponsors a number of children and can talk passionately and intelligently about our work.
How can interested readers get involved in the CCF?
Our biggest ongoing need is for the funds to keep our programs running and continuing to grow. People can visit our website www.cambodianchildrensfund.org to donate and spread the word to their friends and family. If you have the means, sponsor one of our children, or even an entire program, like the nursery we are establishing for kids under 3 years old.
We also have some great products for sale on our website, made by the women at our garment facility. This facility is geared towards the mothers’ of children, most of whom have come from environments of domestic violence. We give them the training and the resources that enable them to transcend their situation and make products that are great. Several celebrities carry our bags. We are also planning to have a clothing line that is designed by some top names in fashion and made by our garment team.
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