Through the Looking Glass: A Journey of Altruism in Phnom Penh

community outreach1 Through the Looking Glass: A Journey of Altruism in Phnom Penh

By Tammy Allman

“Just hang on a minute,” a voice from behind a door shouts. “I’ll just get my trousers on. No one takes me seriously unless I’m wearing my trousers.”

A rusty blond, athletic looking man wearing a loosely fitting shirt and a pair of battered combat shorts emerges from behind the wooden door of the office to run across a hallway filled with photographs of young children. He disappears into his bedroom emerging minutes later wearing the same shirt and even more beaten up combat trousers. Scott Neeson extends his hand in a warm handshake.

People used to take Neeson very seriously. In 2000, he became president of Twentieth Century Fox International in Hollywood, overseeing the production of such blockbuster films as “Independence Day” and “Titanic”.

He was a multi-­millionaire with all the trappings of Hollywood success: a beautiful home, a luxury yacht and an expensive sports car. But in 2004, following what he describes as his epiphany, he left Hollywood behind and moved to a Cambodian slum. Today, the 53-year-­old Australian is the founder and executive director of the Phnom Penh-­based charity, The Cambodian Children’s Fund. He earns a modest salary and says he owns virtually nothing.

Neeson grew up in the industrial town of Elizabeth, South Australia, the son of working”class parents. He attributes his willingness to take risks to the fact that he suffered acute asthma as a child.

He recalled, “I’d have to be taken to the hospital and they had no ventolin, no inhalers, no nebulizers, and I had to get shots of adrenalin to get my heart going.” He experienced these terrifying episodes until he was in his late teens when, once he began to use nebulizers, his life improved dramatically. He said he had always been painfully shy, but soon he began dating.

He was given a job in the marketing department at Clifford Theatres, a local drive­”in theatre company, and began pumping iron at the gym. He said it was like being given a new lease on life.

From a lowly start at Clifford’s, he moved to Greater Union Cinemas and then to Hoyts Cinemas in Sydney. His father, Colin, who was a somewhat remote figure in his son’s formative years, was fearful for his sensitive younger son.

“I never finished high school,” Neeson said, “so he was always telling me what I could and couldn’t do. When I got the first job offer to go to Sydney, he said, “˜You shouldn’t go, you’ll never be able to make it, you never finished high school, you’ll get eaten alive in Sydney.'”

But he was headhunted from one job in the movie industry to the next until finally, Hollywood came knocking, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1993. In 1996 he was made Vice President of Fox Motion Pictures, and by 2000 he was president and responsible for multi-­”million dollar productions.

According to Neeson, his father was somewhat fearful of life and could not understand his son’s knack for success. “It was a mystery to him,” he said, “right until quite late.” He admitted that it was to prove himself to his father that he had his Fox contract state that Colin was to receive first class travel to Hollywood from his Australian home each year.

Then, Neeson said, “Just when he began to realise he didn’t have to worry about me, I told him I was selling everything and moving to Cambodia. His father, he recalled with a wry laugh, almost imploded.

It was 2003, during a break between jobs ““ Neeson was moving from Twentieth Century Fox to Sony Pictures Entertainment ““ and what was intended to be a short visit to Phnom Penh, no more than a couple of days on his way through to Angkor, turned out to be a huge turning point in his life.

Neeson was struck by the plight of many of the city’s street kids and wanted to help them by giving money. “I was naively thinking I was the first person trying to help these kids,” he said. But the parents, or the people “˜running’ the kids, knew every way to scam money out of well-intentioned tourists and most of the money went directly into the adults’ pockets.

He quickly took to buying food for the kids as a way to ensure it was they that benefitted, eventually hiring out a whole restaurant to provide meals for them.

The restaurant owner suggested he should visit the Steung Meanchey municipal dump, on the outskirts of the city. Neeson recalled: “He pointed out the degree to which I was getting ripped off and said, “˜You know, if you really want to help people, go down here, because no one’s helping these people.'”

Neeson took the address of the dump and went there with a translator. He said what confronted him was the most appalling sight he could ever imagine.

“It’s a putrid, stinking garbage dump,” he said. “And it’s the worst kind of garbage: human excrement, body parts, aborted fetuses. It’s already hot here ““ you get temperatures in the high thirties, (low) forties” but on the garbage dump you’ve got burning methane, and so it’s closer to fifty degrees. It’s intense.”

Scott at dump Through the Looking Glass: A Journey of Altruism in Phnom Penh

He said the dust was so overwhelming that after a few minutes it was virtually impossible to see. “It was so bad it took me a while to realise what the movement was, but it was all these kids, all wrapped up and bandaged with rags all over them.” He waved his arms around while describing the scene, as if wrapping a mummy. “For two reasons,” he said, “one: to keep the sun off and, two: they have no place to live so they wear everything they own at the same time. And all you can see are their eyes.” He seemed to be still shaken by the memory. “I’d never seen kids with blank eyes,” he said. “They had absolutely no hope.”

He recollected that even though the children had probably never seen a Westerner before, they showed no interest in him as he picked his way over the stinking, festering mess.

A full day working on the dump would earn each child around 25 or 30 cents. “When they were exhausted they would lie down and sleep on the garbage. And they’d wake up in the morning and they’d do it again, he said.”

That day, Neeson realised that a little money could go a long way to changing the lives of these hopeless scavengers. He met the mothers of two of the girls, Srey Nich and Rithy, and arranged to get them off the dump and into school. “Being in the corporate world, the thing that struck me most was how easy it was,” he said. “It was extremely cheap. It was US$30 or US$40 a month and they were no longer living on the garbage dump.”

This was the beginnings of what was to become CCF, which he established later that year. “My life has always had cataclysmic changes. No one ever expected me to get a job, let alone move to Hollywood and do what I did,” he said.

It was a far cry from his life in Hollywood, where he had what he describes as a very nice lifestyle. But, he said, “There’s been a lot of stuff written (about him) that simply isn’t true. It makes a good story but it’s not true.” He had a nice home in Brentwood, for example. “It’s painted (in news stories) as being a mansion; it wasn’t a mansion.” But it was the first place he had that really felt like home. Although he met A-­list celebrities through his work and in his neighbourhood, he said he didn’t mix with them socially.

The model Cindy Crawford lived nearby, but he said they did not socialise together. “She lived two doors down and we’d say hello. I’d see her in the morning putting out the garbage and I’d be doing the same.”

He said he accepted as inevitable the exaggerated tales of his Hollywood life. “But the People story really annoyed me,” he said, referring to descriptions of him in People Magazine’s “Heroes Amongst Us” story in November 2012. “I was not nearly as shallow as they made out, and certainly not “˜a self-confessed babeaholic’, nothing like that at all, no.”

He admitted to dating a string of what he said were decent, intelligent, women but said at the same time he maintained a committed spiritual practice which ultimately led to his sabbatical in Asia. He had come to visit the sacred Buddhist temples of Cambodia and Thailand, but he found exactly what he was looking for instead at Steung Meanchey.

By the time the visit to Phnom Penh was over, “I knew this was what I was meant to do,” he said. When he returned to Hollywood to begin his new role with Sony, he vowed to wait 12 months before fully committing to moving to Phnom Penh.

In that 12-­month period he made 11 return trips to Cambodia. Each trip would see him abandoning more of his old life and adopting his new role as caretaker and provider for the dump children.

Neesen knew he had to do something more than just rescue a couple of children, however. So he held a huge garage sale of all his belongings and moved out of his Brentwood home. “The biggest thing was, I’d sold my dogs which was heart-breaking, and I was living in this terrible, shitty little rental, just waiting for my 12 months to be up.”

He said close friends recognised his conviction, but others assumed it was simply his time for a mid-­life crisis. Some even thought it was an elaborate ploy. “People thought that by coming here, I’d get out of my contract and six months later I’d start working with another studio,” he said. But there was no doubt in his mind: “I was never going back. Giving away my dogs ““ if anyone had been watching ““ that was the mark.”

By the time Neeson eventually moved to Phnom Penh in December 2004, he had already rented a building ““ now known as CCF One, the first of eight such buildings ““ and had laid the foundations for CCF. “When I got here, the grand plan back then was to get 45 kids in, and then that number went up to 87. And it went up again, and up again.” He said that each year for the first six years of operation, the charity doubled in number of children, size of facilities and staff. Today over 1,600 children are cared for, either on a live-­in or live-­out basis.

Despite his initial fears, Colin became heavily involved in CCF, spending three to four months in Cambodia each year.

“His life started in his early eighties when I started this place,” said Neeson. “He was the most loved man and he was a different guy. He was the father he should have been. He was so available to every kid.” It was shortly before Colin’s sudden death in August 2011 that he finally acknowledged his son’s achievements. They were sharing a meal together when, said Neeson, “He looked up and he said, “˜I get it now. I get why you’re successful. I can see it.’ And I thought, wow, this is something I never thought I’d hear him say.”

In Neeson’s office, a converted bedroom in his two-­story house minutes away from the dump, before-­and-­after photos of his beloved children fill the walls. Each set of photos tells its own mini-­success story.

Downstairs, around 15 children play in the lounge, or eat lunch while sitting cross-­legged in a circle on his kitchen floor. As rudimentary as this seems, Neeson speaks of today’s CCF as a complex operation with over 40 different programs, each one supporting the central aims of driving education and leadership. All the kids are in school he said. “The kids are all going to go to university. It’s a promise we made to all 1,600 kids. And at the same time they have to become leaders if they are to change this country from this corrupt, patriarchal place.” Asked if he has sought outside help in building the programs, he is emphatic: “No one is doing anything like this. It’s purely intuitive.”

Libby Vaughan, director of CCF Hong Kong and head of CCF’s donor and corporate relations, said she left a well-­paid career as managing director of an IT solutions company to join Neeson. “Scott’s an incredibly inspirational person and he makes me feel very humble,” she said.

But Neeson, although still bubbling with enthusiasm, seems fatigued. A deep tiredness weighs on his features and he looks much thinner than when I last saw him 10 months earlier.

He said he had been hospitalised recently with dengue fever and severe bronchitis, but he also admitted to feeling the stress of constant worry. “I can tell when a kid has got a problem straightaway,” he said. And problems for these children are often extreme: destitution, physical and sexual abuse from a young age — ­ sometimes as young as three or four — ­ drug addicted parents, lack of a stable, nurturing family environment. “My biggest nightmares are always about someone that’s fallen through the cracks,” he said. But his face quickly lights up again as he invites me to visit the facilities with him.

As Neeson walks into one of CCF’s outdoor classrooms, the children burst into a rousing rendition of the ABC song. He can’t walk anywhere without a small child hugging him, leaping into his arms or pressing small gifts into his hand: a drawing they’ve made or a small flower they’ve handpicked for him.

They call him “˜papa’ and he is just that: a second father to them. He knows each of their names and their individual stories, sharing anecdotes as we walk.

Saron, a CCF translator said of Neeson, “He comes every day to see the children.” But there is a general consensus: “He looks thin. He looks tired,” she said, and another CCF worker nods her head in agreement.

Immediately outside the CCF facilities lies the village of Steung Meanchey. There is a stark contrast between the vibrancy and energy of the facilities and the horror of the reality outside. This is poverty most extreme. People live on top of each other in houses that are no more than scavenged bits of rubbish from the dump. The air is fetid and the ground a putrid mess. The village is a complex of the desperate.

A mother needs milk for her child. A child with a bad cough is a suspected asthmatic, and Neeson arranges a hospital appointment. He has a bodyguard with him, he said, mainly out of loyalty towards him. But he admitted he had “made a number of enemies down there,” by such actions as interventions on child abuse, “and things like that make people unpredictable.”

But the effect Neeson’s presence has on the villagers is palpable: he is like Father Christmas and Mahatma Gandhi metamorphosed as a combat trouser clad crusader. He is a man with a purpose and he is obsessive: he has devoted his life to this project.

Libby Vaughan said, “Working with someone like Scott, who has created something very special can be challenging. It takes time to trust someone enough to let go.”

Neeson himself admitted that he’s not the easiest person, claiming he would make a terrible husband. “I’m very introverted,” he said. “I don’t want to share. I don’t want to talk about my day when I get home. I like to shut down.”

But as Vaughan explained, Neeson is the heart and soul of CCF. “How do I get volunteers at CCF?” she said, “I tell them all to go to Cambodia, to see the facilities and learn about the place, to spend time with Scott. And then you see it. It’s like a switch goes on. He enthuses them with his passion, so that they become engaged and passionate too. That’s it,” she said, “his enthusiasm and his power of will drives it ““ drives me ““ to want to do more.”

Neeson says he has no regrets whatsoever, despite his apparent fatigue and recent illness. Instead he spoke of the great joy he has in his life. “There’s no question it’s cathartic for me,” he said. “Being asthmatic and having parents who were really very distant, it is cathartic for me. I see myself in every one of these kids.”

Was it worth giving up his glamorous Hollywood lifestyle? “Absolutely,” he said. “I have virtually nothing. Five pairs of combat trousers, where I used to wear designer suits.” But, he said, seeing the difference CCF is making to these children’s lives is more than enough to make up for it. “It is such a blessing and an honour to be a part of, not just as a spectator, but to help to facilitate that change. It’s truly amazing. And doing it a thousand times: it’s so joyful.”

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  • Athina

    Great article. Neeson is an admirable man who is able to find what really is important in life.