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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...
SCOTT By RoBeRt KieneR
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
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
50m away I see three garbage pickers
lying atop the trash under a plastic
and cardboard shelter.
“Are they taking a break?” I ask
had a million-
“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
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
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
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.”
eating an ice-cream – for the first time Then the star grabbed the phone
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-
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
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
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.
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