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Lions Roar : March 2017
Once upon a time, Scott Neeson lived a Hollywood life. “I was president of Twentieth Century Fox International and had signed up to start a new job at Sony Pictures International,” he says. “I put in a five-week break to cleanse myself from so much time in the film business.” Neeson had a passion for Buddhist monuments and embarked on a tour of Southeast Asia and India. But what he experienced wasnt the peaceful reprieve he had envisioned— while in Cambodia, he decided to make an unusual request. “When I was in Phnom Penh, I asked to see the worst poverty in the country,” Neeson recalls. “They took me to Stung Meanchey, a garbage dump a hundred yards deep that covers twenty-five acres.” Standing there changed everything for Neeson. “More than 1,500 children were scavenging among this garbage. It was over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and at that temperature the garbage decomposes and produces methane, while the ground below is essentially lava or molten garbage. I had burns on my feet from not watching where I was stepping, and the stench was unbearable.” Many of the children scavenging were abandoned by parents who could no longer care for them due to debt, illness, alcohol- ism, or remarriage. Neeson felt a strong urge to help, but says he still had the classic prejudices against charities. “The three most common are, one, you don’t know where your money’s going,” he explains. “You always think some- one’s getting a fat salary and only a few pennies actually hit the ground. The second is that as one individual, you can’t make that much of an impact. Even all your salary wouldn’t make a tangible difference. The third one is, ‘It isn’t my problem.’ Sit- ting in the U.S., you feel like it’s the other side of the world. You pay taxes, so it’s up to the government to provide foreign aid.” But Neeson couldn’t ignore this call to action. “I knew there was no way for these children to ever get off this garage dump. They would live there, they would die there. They would be taken for trafficking. The mothers would give birth there. It was the apocalypse. It was horrendous.” A nine-year-old walked past Neeson in a wretched state, and the sight broke his heart. “At first I couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl because the child was completely swathed up—all you could see were the eyes,” he says. “Part of it was the searing heat, but, also, these were all the articles of clothing she had. There was no place to leave anything you owned.” Through an interpreter, Neeson discovered the girl was there with her sister and mother. “Through some quick discussion and corporate problem-solving skills, we identified a place for her to live and got her into a school. I put together a system where I could send money from Los Angeles to her mother weekly. I got the youngest daughter, who was sick with typhoid, into hospital.” Neeson was shocked that this had taken only ninety minutes and would cost him only $35 a month. “I had, as a single indi- vidual, profoundly changed the destiny of this one child,” he says. “All of my prejudices about charities went out the window right there. There was no plan B for these children. It was my problem. As a human being, as a living, breathing person, I had an obligation. I was hooked by the mere fact of how easy it was to change the life of that child.” WHEN SCOTT NEESON went back to the U.S. to start his new job, “I made a promise that I wasn’t going to have a classic Los Angeles midlife crisis,” he says. “I’d been working for twenty-six years in the film business. I had worked my way up from being a projectionist at a drive-in theater, and I wasn’t going to throw it all away.” Yet the urge to help more children only got louder. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Neeson says. “I spent the next year making monthly trips to Cambodia furthering the cause, getting more children involved, hiring staff. My idea was to have my two worlds coexist—to spend three weeks in my Hollywood film environment, where you fly first class, go to the Academy Awards, hang out with all the celebrities, make a million dollars a year or more—and then send that money to Cambodia. Scott Neeson, seen here with Harrison Ford, started out as a projectionist at a drive- in and worked his way up to president of Twentieth Century Fox International. PHOTOSCOURTESYOFCAMBODIANCHILDREN’SFUND LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 38