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Difference Maker

Scott Neeson left Hollywood to save children rooting in Cambodia's garbage dumps

He sold his mansion, Porsche, and yacht and set off for Cambodia to provide food, shelter, and education to destitute children.

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On the walls of his office, next to movie posters signed by Hollywood stars, are before-and-after pictures of Cambodian children. Each pair tells a Cinderella story: A little ragamuffin, standing or squatting in rubbish, transforms in a later shot into a beaming, healthy child in a crisp school uniform.

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Neeson has more than 1,300 sets of such pictures; that's how many children his charity looks after. Every one of the children, the Australian humanitarian stresses, he knows by sight, and most of them by name. "You go through a certain journey with them," he says.

Houy and Heang were among the first who started that journey with him in 2004. Abandoned by their parents, the two sisters, now 17 and 18, lived at the dump in a makeshift tent.

"We felt sick and had no shoes. Our feet hurt," Houy recalls in the fluent English she's learned. "We'd never seen a foreigner," Heang adds. "He asked us, 'Do you want to study?' "

Today the sisters are about to graduate from high school. They want to go on to college.

Neeson maintains four residential homes around town for more than 500 other deprived children and is building another. He operates after-school programs and vocational training centers. He's built day cares and nurseries.

His charity provides some 500 children with three meals a day and runs a bakery where disadvantaged youths learn marketable skills while making nutrient-rich pastry for the poorest kids. It pays for well over 1,000 children's schooling and organizes sightseeing trips and sports days for them.

"I drive the staff crazy," says Neeson, who employs more than 300 locals, many of them former scavengers. "If I come up with a plan, I want to see it implemented within 48 hours. If I see a need, I want to do something about it. You don't want to see suffering prolonged."

He sees plenty of both need and suffering.

After decades of genocide and civil war, millions of Cambodians live in abject poverty. Many children are chronically malnourished, and many never even finish primary school.

On a late afternoon, as garbage pickers begin to return to their squalid dwellings of plastic sheets, tarpaulins, and plywood, Neeson sets out on his daily "Pied Piper routine."

Navigating a muddy path, pocked with fetid puddles and strewn with trash, which winds among clusters of derelict shacks and mounds of garbage, he picks his way around a squatters' community. Everywhere he goes, children dash up to him with cries of "Papa! Papa!" They leap into his arms, pull at his shirt, cling to his arms, wrap themselves around his legs.

"Hey, champ!" he greets a boy who clambers up on him. "He needs a dentist so badly," he notes, referring to the boy's rotten teeth. His charity offers free health care and dental services to the children and their parents.

In 2007 Neeson won the Harvard School of Public Health's Q Prize, an award created by music legend Quincy Jones. In June he was named "a hero of philanthropy" by Forbes magazine. ("Well, I finally made it into Forbes," he quips. "But no 'World's Richest' list for me.")

When Neeson spots certain kids, he hands them their portraits from a sheaf of newly printed photographs he carries around.

"I want them to have mementoes of themselves when they grow up and leave all this behind," he explains. They give him their latest drawings in return.

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