The Apostle Paul’s epiphany came in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus. Scott Neeson — the former president of 20th Century Fox International — had his while standing on a garbage dump outside Phnom Penh. The problem with epiphanies is that no one really wants one because the results can be drastic. How drastic?
When Neeson first surveyed the horror of that garbage dump, with children living and dying on its 11-hectares of waste and filth, he couldn’t have known he would soon be living on the edge of the dump himself — Hollywood and one of the great glamour jobs in the world left behind. Neeson had been travelling in Asia in 2003 after leaving 20th Century Fox, where he had made more than 200 films in 10 years, including Titanic and Braveheart.
“I took a break before joining Sony Pictures so I could cleanse my soul of Hollywood and someone took me to this garbage dump outside Phnom Penh,” Neeson said Tuesday in Vancouver.
“It was horrendous. The epiphany — when I knew I was going to be doing this forever — happened when I took a 10-year-old girl and her mother out of the dump that day and, through a translator, found them a rental house, a way to deliver rice, a stipend. And all for less than $45 a month. It just seemed so easy.”
This was someone who was making a million dollars a year but didn’t believe in giving to charity. A year later he had waved goodbye to Hollywood, sold his home, his cars and his boat, and moved to Cambodia. Out of his own pocket he set up the Cambodian Children’s Fund to care for some 2,000 children living or working near that rubbish dump in Steung Meanchey district.
It’s probably only a matter of time before someone makes a movie about it, but Neeson — born in Scotland, raised in Australia and proud of working-class roots — isn’t sentimental, nor does he see himself in the Mother Teresa mould. “Honestly, I try an avoid that kind of stuff because it all goes downhill from there if you don’t.”
On Tuesday night he was in the sales office of Vancouver House on Howe Street to thank the 380 purchasers of units in the luxury 59-storey highrise that will be completed in 2018. For every unit sold, a new 130-square-foot home worth $2,500 will be built in Steung Meanchey to house families who eke out a living on the garbage dump. It is the result of a relationship between Neeson and Vancouver-based World Housing, which promotes the one-for-one real estate gifting based on TOMS Shoes model, where TOMS gives away a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased by a customer.
The project was backed by Ian Gillespie, president of Westbank Projects Corp., which is building Vancouver House, after he met with World Housing founder Peter Dupuis. Neeson said the 380 homes will house over 2,000 people and will be located in a gated community. Each house will have electricity and there will be shared washrooms and bathrooms for every six families.
Parents who want the homes have to agree to keep their children in school — not working in the dump, must be free from drug or alcohol abuse and not involved in domestic violence. Neeson found the social problems at the garbage dump overwhelming.
Babies and children are routinely abandoned among the rubbish; children whose parents are victims of usury sell their children into prostitution to pay off loans they can never hope to meet; while the routine level of violence against women and children was numbing. He carries pictures of some of the children on his phone. Here’s one of a year-old baby abandoned on the dump with tetanus — “didn’t know he’d survive, only 50-50 chance, but now he’s in our nursery."
Next is one of two girls, perhaps five years old. "Raped by guys who tried to kill them. This child was beaten until she was unconscious and raped and wasn’t expected to live. This child, the guy thought he’d drowned her. These girls can’t stay at home now so they stay at our facility,” he said.
This one “stepped on a landmine and lost both her legs and she was brought to us. Just look at that picture. (She’s lying in bed surrounded by toys.) She doesn’t even want to look at me. All she wants is to die. But now she’s the princess of our residential centre.”
Neeson says he knows the names of each of the 2,000 children his organization helps. Graham Brewster, managing director of World Housing who was recently with Neeson in Cambodia, swears it’s true. “I was blown away by him doing that. He knew the name of every child he met,” Brewster said.
The Cambodian Children’s Fund operates on a budget of about $8 million a year without government support and has 540 staff. It provides schooling, food, medical care, child care and housing, will undertake to pay off crippling debts allowing families to pay back loans at normal interest rates, and has resulted in Neeson being showered with awards for his humanity.
However, when he gets down to it, Neeson admits he really doesn’t like living in Phnom Penh. “But I’ve got all these relationships with all these kids I’m raising. These are kids who’ve never been picked up or held. And for me to just know their names means the world to them.”
Read the full story online at Vancouver Sun.