Venturing beyond our own neighborhoods – both socially and emotionally – can be the most exciting and revealing journey of all.
When I visited Cambodia one of my tour guides was Scott Neeson – a former Hollywood mover, shaker, and “A-list” entertainment industry executive. In Phnom Pehn he led me on a hike up a mountain of steaming, stinking garbage where we enjoyed the hospitality of local residents who eat, sleep, and work in a toxic landfill. I was worlds away from my usual comfort zone – but soon felt right at home thanks to spiritual connections established with the lovely people I met.
Picking through the Steung Meanchey Landfill
I saw children’s lives positively transformed by a man whose own life has been completely enriched by the impoverished children he helps.
“Hundreds of children pick through the garbage at Steung Meanchey to make enough money to feed themselves and maybe enough to send some home,” Scott told me as we toured the site. “Some are orphans and many of them were brought to the horrendous place by parents who cannot afford them.” The high earners make $5-$6 a day – way too much to lose by going back to home or school in a place where the average salary is a dollar and a half a day. “The only job is picking garbage,” he explained. “But it is a better life than where they were in rural farms or fishing villages.”
Then they met Scott – or he met them – and a miraculous reciprocation began. Scott sold his possessions and moved to Cambodia to give the impoverished kids of Phnom Pehn a better way of life. He established the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) as a safe house for orphans and other abandoned or abused children. About 45 children came to the facility to receive shelter while they learned jobs skills within a secure environment.
Coming Full Circle in a Recycling Center
Recycling takes many forms. We recycle energy, we recycle experiences, and sometimes we even recycle ourselves from one identity or lifestyle to another.
Within four short years, CCF grew into an organization with five separate facilities where nearly 400 children now receive nutrition and housing, medical treatment and vaccinations, dental services, and comprehensive education. They learn to read and write in the local language and attend multi-level classes in English, social studies, and math. They also attend evening classes at the rooftop cultural center, where they learn traditional Khmer music, dance and drama.
CCF is also expanding its community relief programs to provide suffering families better access to education, health care, food assistance and safe drinking water to break the cycle of poverty.
The spirits of these children are strong and they are filled with love. And now, thanks to Scott and his CCF colleagues and sponsors, they have a chance at a better life. They become happy, healthy, productive people. What is so inspiring, said one aid worker at CCF, is to see how easy it is to change a child’s life with some quality time and love.
The Miracle of Daylight’s Darkness
“The law of love could best be learned and understood through children” (Ghandi)
A few months ago CCF was invited to contribute a piece to the Lakhaon International Festival of Culture 2009, a major arts event supported by the French Cultural Institute. The venue for was the Chenla Theatre, Cambodia’s most prestigious arts venue.
Under the direction of Soung Sopheak, CCF’s Head of Arts and Drama, CCF’s the children performed a dramatization of their own lives that was titled “Daylight’s Darkness.” The performance before a standing-room-only audience – and against a backdrop of rubbish, noisy dump trucks, and flaming debris – opened with a procession of shaded, shabby figures whose shoulders were hunched from hopelessness. Then each actor directly addressed the audience to tell her or his story of life lived in Steung Meanchey.
A video backdrop reenacted the nightly roar of dump truck engines, the glare of their lights, and the threat of their bone-crunching wheels. Each time the trucks sped away leaving silent darkness in their wake, a frenzied fight ensued as children competed for scraps of trash. In the final scene a child scavenger returned home – only to realize that her remorseful parent had died alone and left her to fend for herself as an orphan.
But when the curtain came down the reality was much different, thanks to the intervention of CCF. The children depicted in the play are no longer alone, and they lead vibrant and creative lives.
But to hear Scott Neeson explain it, he is the one who has benefited the most from this incredibly transformative experience and relationship with the children of Steung Meanchey.
“I had all those material accoutrements like the sport car and boat,” he explained to me, “but now I’m really happy in a deeper spiritual way.”
After all, it is by giving of ourselves that we often receive ourselves and return to the original, authentic place where our soul’s long journey began.