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Lions Roar : March 2017
Neeson moved to Cambodia and started the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) in 2004, which works with impoverished communities, centered around the former garbage dump at Steung Meanchey, to provide programs in education, leadership, community outreach, health care, child care, and vocational training. “I sold my boat, the house, the cars. I had the mother of all garage sales,” Neeson says. His vision was to send eighty chil- dren to school. “Today we have 2,200 children studying.” STARTING TO PRACTICE BUDDHISM was not a deliberate choice. It happened gradually as Neeson lived amid Cambodia’s Buddhist culture. “I was unconsciously becoming more Bud- dhist the longer I stayed,” he says. What Neeson did know from the start was that in order to create meaningful change for those around him, he had to start by examining himself. “I loved the children dearly, and those who were not abandoned had parents who had been through the Khmer Rouge as children themselves,” Neeson explains, referencing the Communist regime between 1975 and 1979 during which an estimated one and a half to three million Cambodians died. “Yes, these people learned some parenting skills, but there was also a lot of abuse and alcoholism,” he says. “So I had to become what I wanted them to emulate, and that meant ensur- ing I was unscrupulously honest in what I did and what I said.” A large part of Neeson’s Buddhist practice involved over- coming his judgmental mind. “You’re dealing with such severe cases, and there’s a tendency in the West to judge people for their actions,” he says. “I realized I was burning myself out with judg- ment. It occurred to me one day that I had never walked in their shoes. I then saw that the only way to continue in any fair way was to suspend all judgment and take it on a day-by-day basis.” It was not an easy task. “I see some of the most horrendous abuses against children. When I get a new child, and he’s been through some terrible times, it’s like I’m looking at a beautiful broken vase or a glass. I didn’t break it, and there’s no point worrying about how it got broken. It’s a matter of being able to make it good again, to either put it back together anew or into its original form. “We provide an education that will take the student as far as their abilities will allow,” Neeson continues. “So if they put in the hours and pass, they can go all the way through university. We will help them and support them all the way through.” But Neeson knows that to help children effectively, you often Ney Hang used to wake up at 4 am to pick garbage for survival. Today, (right) she is in second-year university and mentors children at CCF. PHOTOSCOURTESYOFCAMBODIANCHILDREN’SFUND LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 40