PHNOM PENH —
For the past decade, a former Hollywood film CEO has made a difference for thousands of Cambodia's disadvantaged children and their families, helping in education, nutrition and health.
Scott Neeson, who left his 26-year career in the film business, said he founded the Cambodian Children’s Fund after seeing children scavenge at a dump when he came to Cambodia as a tourist in 2003.
“That was a real wake-up call, because prior to that I was living a very privileged life in the West,” he told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “As I was living in Hollywood as a single guy, lots of beautiful women, boats, cars, movie stars—and all of the sudden, you’re confronted with the other extreme. And it’s very hard to turn your back once you’ve seen it.”
His fund has helped children like 10-year-old Mao Liza, who no longer follows her grandmother scavenging trash at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump all day. Now her job is to go to school, to learn to read and write.
“At the organization, I am in the first or second or third,” she said proudly in a recent interview.
Her sister, Suong Lida, 15, has also stopped scavenging. Now she helps with housework and takes English and computer classes at the Cambodian Children’s Fund.
“I want to learn at CCF because when I am educated I will get a job,” she said. “And of course because the classes are free of charge as well.”
The sisters likely would have stayed out of school had Neeson not visited Stung Meanchey more than a decade ago.
As a tourist back, Neeson, the former president of 20th Century Fox, was brought to the dump, where he saw the children scavenging. That changed his life, he said. “I just couldn't turn my back on it.”
A year later, Neeson sold a boat and a car, and moved to Cambodia. He established the fund, which has helped thousands of children and their families, through education, food subsidies and health care. The fund provides English and computer training, drawing and painting classes, and vocational skills.
“You just fall in love with the kids here,” Neeson said. “They are just amazing kids, so much potential, so much hope, and I thought I could do a whole lot more for the world than making movies.”
Neeson oversaw major films like “Titanic” and “Braveheart,” but that was not the only legacy he wanted to leave behind.
“We want to make the world a better place,” he said. “As opposed to just indulgence—a very material life.”
Neeson said he wanted to help parents who were facing very difficult choices. “It’s a choice between, does the child get to go to school, or do we get food on the table that night?” he said.
Sok Phal is Mao Liza's uncle. He said CCF has changed life for his whole family. His niece and daughter are able to get some education, and he and his wife now have a tuk-tuk and a sewing machine to help them with an income.
“I have never imagined my niece and daughter would be able to speak English,” he said. “But now they do.”