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  • 1. He lived the quintessential Hollywood bachelor life – until, that is, he visited Asia on holiday and saw things that made him realise he could never go back to his former existence. This is his story... GREAT SCOTT By RoBeRt KieneR I can smell the garbage dump I choke back nausea as I breathe in before I see it. I’ve come to thick, acrid smoke from the hundreds Phnom Penh to join Scott of small fires that are constantly PhotoS: courteSy of Scot t neeSon Neeson on one of his regular burning. “Watch out,” says Neeson visits to Steung Meanchey, a as he points to a discarded hypodermic 30m-high mountain of decom- needle. “Step on that and you could posing refuse covering 11 hec- get hepatitis or AIDS.” In addition to tares outside Cambodia’s capital. the town’s rubbish, hospitals dump one man, what a Wearing rubber boots, and trousers and used syringes, body parts and even difference: Scott shirts we will throw out later, Neeson aborted foetuses here. neeson revels in and I climb up the garbage mountain. Walking atop the garbage is like birthday festivities The smell is overpowering: a mix of walking on a waterbed: one wrong with two of his sulphur, rotting flesh and excrement. step and you could fall into a charges 100 readersdigest.com.au 10/09 101
  • 2. H quicksand-like cesspool of toxic ow Scott Neeson came to if scavengers take a sludge. From the top of the sprawling be rescuing children, aban- wrong step they could dump, I see scores of garbage pickers doned to live like rats fall into a cesspool of through a smoky haze. There are some among garbage, reads like toxic sludge adults, but many are children. a movie script, an irony he can Amazingly, many of them are bare- appreciate. In 2003, Neeson, 44, was foot. All have skin blackened by the a high-powered movie executive sun and the filth. Every one has a sack dubbed “Mr Hollywood” by the media. slung over his or her back for recy- He had all the Hollywood trappings clables. A caravan of overflowing – a million-dollar-plus salary as senior garbage trucks thunders by, closely vice-president of marketing at Sony followed by a stream of scavengers, Pictures, a Beverly Hills mansion, a all eager to get first pickings as the 12m yacht, a Porsche 911, a pricey trucks disgorge their loads. “Those motorcycle and an SUV. drivers are ruthless,” says Neeson. He worked and partied with the “Each year they run over and kill likes of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, several garbage pickers.” Harrison Ford and other stars. Never Neeson greets numerous scaven- married, he was often seen with a gers, asking, “Is everything OK?” If a stunning girlfriend on his arm. child is injured or has been beaten, a regular occurrence at the dump, he will help arrange medical care. About Dubbed “Mr 50m away I see three garbage pickers lying atop the trash under a plastic Hollywood”, he and cardboard shelter. “Are they taking a break?” I ask had a million- Neeson. “No. They live there.” dollar-plus salary He took a job as a film buyer in Sydney, and began climbing the corporate “He’ll be OK,” everyone said. “He just needs to chill out.” Children rush up to Neeson and with trappings A ladder, getting into film distribution playfully shout, “I want to study. Take and production. Eventually, Hollywood lthough Neeson didn’t me to school!” Neeson is well known came calling. intend to spend more than here; he visits several times a week His rise in the Hollywood film But something was missing. He told a few days in Phnom Penh, and has placed more than 400 children industry had been meteoric. A high- a trusted friend, “There has to be more the poverty he saw there, from here into care at the charity he school dropout in Australia at 16, he to life than making movies.” Associates combined with the charm and grace founded, the Cambodian Children’s got work during the day as an assistant thought that Neeson might be suffer- of the long-suffering Cambodians he Fund (CCF). But there are still in a small company that ran suburban ing from burnout, not unknown in met, affected him. He cancelled much children who need help. “It’s heart- and outdoor cinemas in Adelaide; and the high-stress, cutthroat world of of his cross-Asia trip and began breaking,” says Neeson as he kneels at night, as an assistant projectionist Los Angeles filmmaking. exploring the city. Everywhere he and balances a bright-eyed six-year- and cinema usher. Despite his lack of In 2003 he jumped on a plane and looked he saw poverty and need. old on his knee. “I wish I could help schooling, he was pushed to succeed set off for a five-week backpacking After meeting a boy begging on the every child here.” and worked hard. His bosses noticed. and motorcycling trip through Asia. street, he offered to support the child’s 102 readersdigest.com.au 12/09 103
  • 3. walked over and listened. Both smelled phone rang. It was a famous movie horrible. He asked the girls if he could star and his agent, calling from Europe meet their mothers, to whom he gave during a promotional tour that Neeson US$10 each. He arranged to meet them was handling. the following day. “Scott, we’ve got a problem,” the The next day, as he sat in a riverside agent said. café in Phnom Penh’s tourist district, Neeson, who just that morning had two children approached his table. It learnt that five of the children in his was Rithy and Nich, so cleaned up – new shelter had typhoid, answered, transformed – that Neeson didn’t “What’s up?” recognise them. “It’s a real problem,” the agent He promised their mothers US$50 told Scott. “The private plane the a month if they sent both girls to school studio chartered doesn’t have the right neeson started instead of forcing them to work at the sort of bottled water or food we dump. They agreed. require. We’re not getting on until by housing, feeding Watching the two girls happily this is fixed.” and educating eating an ice-cream – for the first time Then the star grabbed the phone 45 children in their lives – he asked himself, from his agent’s hands and said, Is this all it takes to change the lives of “Scott, my life is NOT supposed to He told himself, “Is this all it takes to two children? be this difficult. Fix it.” It was a turning point. Shortly there- A after Neeson gave notice to his bosses change the lives of two children?” s his plane, bound for Bangkok and a connecting flight to Los Angeles, flew and said goodbye to Hollywood, as well as the Porsche, the yacht, the motor- dirt-poor family. He paid their rent, Neeson to tears. Hundreds of garbage over Phnom Penh, Neeson cycle and the salary. bought them a refrigerator and paid pickers, including abandoned children, looked down at the city and thought, In 2004 he started CCF with over to send their children to school. Two sifted through the toxic piles for re- This is simple. I have so much. They US$100,000 ($130,000 at the time) of weeks later, he discovered that the cyclable glass, metal or paper, hoping have so little. his own money. To keep costs down, child’s mother and father had to earn enough to eat. He subsequently decided to stop off he slept on the couch in his small office sold whatever he had given them Children as young as two years old, in Phnom Penh for a few days each in the building the new charity rented and spent the money on gambling abandoned by mothers whose new month while on his many interna- in Phnom Penh. He travelled around and drinking. husbands refused to support their tional business trips. the city on a scooter. A Cambodian friend took him aside children from previous marriages, Within seven months, Neeson had At first, he planned to house, feed and said, “You’re naïve, Scott. Those were living in the mounds of trash. rented a building in Phnom Penh, hired and educate 45 children and hire a people are using you.” He advised He spotted a tiny child in ragged a small staff and rescued 12 homeless staff of eight. By the end of the first Neeson to go to Phnom Penh’s clothes, so covered in black soot he children from the streets and the year he had nearly 100 children. A year notorious Steung Meanchey garbage couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. He Steung Meanchey dump. He thought later he had 200. dump, home to the country’s poorest. asked his translator to call the child about making a permanent move to Today, CCF provides housing, food, “There are children there who really over. Her name was Rithy, and she was Phnom Penh but was undecided. clothing, healthcare, education and need your help.” 12. She told him she had never been to Then, during one of his visits to vocational training to more than 400 The scene at the dump reduced school. Another girl, Nich, nine, the Cambodian capital, his mobile children and employs 47 people. 104 readersdigest.com.au 12/09 105
  • 4. I nside a tidy four-storey residence, There’s nine-year old Eang, who was At ten years old (top),on the waiting scores of children are typing at covered with sores and filth when this girl was rescued list for CCF. computers, reciting English or Scott found her. Now, she’s healthy, by neeson. She’s “They all want taking a lunchtime nap in their lives in a CCF facility and attends a now 14, healthy and so badly to learn,” well-kept dormitories. nearby public school. She hopes to be happy (bottom) says Neeson. He A van pulls up outside. “Scott’s an English teacher. expected 25 chil- here!” the children shriek, happily Nyta, 13, had never been to school dren when he opened this new school. dashing down the stairs. A tall, blue- when Scott found her alone at the He now has more than 100. eyed man enters, kicks off his thongs dump. A local sponsor paid for her Recently Neeson asked one of these and takes two squealing children in tuition at a prestigious English- children, six-year-old Leng, what she his arms. Two more playfully leap onto language Phnom Penh school. Derided wanted for her birthday. “She was his back as the 1.8m-tall Neeson wades by other students as a “garbage picker”, stunned,” Neeson recalls. “No-one through a growing ocean of excited she usually came home to the CCF had ever asked her that.” children, all of whom are pleading, shelter in tears. But she never gave A few days later she announced, “Pick me up, Scott!” up. “She finished her first year as the “I want a birthday cake.” Beaming with joy, Neeson asks, top student,” says a proud Neeson. “I bought the biggest cake I could “Have you ever seen so much happi- Some people have called Neeson find and had her name written on top ness in one place?” “a miracle worker”. The Harvard of it,” he says. Hundreds of garbage A good question from a man who has found profound joy in his own life. School of Public Health honoured him recently and described him as “a genu- “This is my life pickers showed up for the celebration and sang “Happy Birthday” in mangled If Scott Neeson misses Hollywood, you’d never know it. Indeed, he admits, ine profile in courage”. Says Joseph Mussomeli, former US ambassador work now. I’m English to the wide-eyed girl. “She was crying, I was crying, many “I’d rather not talk about my time there. It’s ancient history.” to Cambodia, “Scott saves and changes lives.” committed to of us were in tears,” says Neeson. Later that night, long after the cake He does revisit his former home town several times a year to raise the After five years of working in Cambodia, Neeson admits he has only these kids” had been eaten and everyone had gone back to their modest bamboo-and-tin US$1.85 million ($2 million) he needs just begun. “This is my life work now; huts, Neeson walked by Leng’s hut and to run CCF annually, but after a week I’m committed to these kids.” Should heard her singing softly to herself, in Los Angeles, he confesses he’s al- anything happen to him, he has a suc- “Happy Birthday to me. Happy ways itching to get back to Phnom cession plan that should guarantee the Birthday to me. Happy Birthday dear Penh and what he terms “reality”. He organisation’s survival. His greatest Leng. Happy Birthday to me.” n is not fond of public speaking and hope is that some of the children will usually lets the stories of “his kids” become Cambodia’s next generation the Steung Meanchey dump was finally speak for themselves. of movers and shakers. closed by the Phnom Penh government There’s bright-eyed 17-year-old Neeson’s newest project is a satellite in July 2009. Many of the scavengers Kunthea, orphaned at three years, who school set up for children who live in have relocated to the new dump, had lived at the dump almost his entire a shantytown alongside Steung further out of the city, and CCF is life. Today, after learning English at Meanchey. “It’s just an open-sided busier than ever bringing them CCF’s main facility, he works as a chef room with a corrugated tent and a aid and sustenance. to make a at Phnom Penh’s trendy Metro Café. fluorescent light,” he explains. He donation or to sponsor a child, He’d like to start his own restaurant. opened it to teach English to children visit cambodianchildrensfund.org. 106 readersdigest.com.au 12/09 107