In Cambodia I met children who lived in toxic garbage dumps until they were personally rescued by a former member of Hollywood’s A-list elite.
While visiting Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I experienced one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes on earth – seeing firsthand how as many as 500 to 600 young children call the hellish Steung Meanchey landfill their only home. But I also met a former member of the Hollywood elite who has dedicated his life to rescuing these children and giving them a renewed sense of hope, promise, dignity, and love. Through his acts of generosity and sacrifice he himself has been given a new lease on life and has discovered his life’s greatest reward and purpose.
The Plight of the Phnom Penh Pickers
The conditions are so hazardous that it is a wonder they survive, and for these children survival is their only real goal in life.
Entering the vast Steung Meanchey stench pile I found tiny young children stunted by malnutrition and emotionally and psychically numbed by horror, deprivation, and abuse. While others their age attend daycare centers or elementary schools these children work an average of 10 hours per day, every day, sifting through smoldering trash trying to find items that can be sold as salvage. Some are kidnapped into lives of child prostitution or forced labor. Others are maimed or killed by the deafeningly loud trucks that barrel across the landfill 24-hours a day.
When it’s time to go home these little residents simply crawl inside makeshift shelters in the landfill that have been temporarily constructed of materials like cardboard and plastic garbage bags. They live like rats, alongside the disease-carrying vermin and venomous snakes that also come to the trash heap in search of food.
But despite these ungodly circumstances I can now say that being invited into their homes and into their lives has opened my eyes to the deeper beauty of the human spirit. Their strong spirits have uplifted my own.
Scott Neeson and the Cambodian Children’s Fund
“When I was deep in poverty you taught me how to give.” (Bob Dylan)
I was introduced to several of these children and their families by Scott Neeson, a current Phnom Penh resident who used to live in my own hometown of Los Angeles, California. There, until just a few years ago, he was an active and super-successful Hollywood “A-lister” who drove a sports car, owned a boat, and enjoyed an entire menu of posh comforts.
The remarkable journey to Phnom Pehn began when Scott – after a 26 year-career in the film business including tenure as president of 20th Century Fox International and a similar position with Sony Pictures International – decided to take a short vacation to Cambodia. What was meant to be a brief and cursory excursion into a foreign land became an entirely new trajectory in life, though, because it was during that profoundly moving and spiritually insightful visit to Phnom Penh that Scott decided he needed to be a server. He made a powerful commitment to give of himself in whatever way possible in order to help save the young garbage pickers of Steung Meanchey.
That is not to say that Scott is out of the limelight completely, however, because since relocating to Cambodia he has been featured in publications including the LA Times, Journey, Conde’ Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, and he was recently named the ABC World News “Person of the Week.” What has changed – in a dramatic 180-degree shift of lifestyle, career, and personal focus – is that instead of garnering press as a Hollywood executive Scott is now being reported on and honored for his work as a relief worker. The new organization he founded, the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), now thrives – as do the hundreds of children he has reached, and continues to reach, through his passionate efforts and this wonderfully multi-faceted charitable organization.
You Paid for the Ticket So Take the Full Ride
Traveling beyond your comfort zone can be the most exhilarating and rewarding trip life has to offer.
Now instead of presiding in the C-suite of a multinational entertainment industry enterprise Scott spends his time as Executive Director of CCF. Many days his commute to the office consists of trekking knee-deep through putrid rubbish in a noisy, chaotic, toxic hell that smells to high heaven.
But that’s how he comes face to face with children who are garbage pickers so that he can literally and figuratively extend a hand to help restore their lives. While performing this charitable service Scott finds a reward that is much more satisfying and rich than the luxurious Hollywood elite lifestyle that he left behind to do this challenging work.
Travel can be a fabulous microscope with which to observe the details of our lives – or the overall landscape of life. Even packing a suitcase can be revealing in terms of what is really important to us and what we are prepared to jettison.
As I’ve often expressed, those who visit other places as travelers – not as mere tourists – open themselves up to extraordinary relationships with places, customs, and people. For some who are willing to boldly venture beyond the confines of comfort – as Scott Neeson did in 2003 – a temporary destination may become a new home thanks to new-found relationships with others (and with one’s own adventurous self).