Dr. Jay Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Scott is a remarkable human being who put his life on the line to help children in Cambodia who had no hope. Now they have a future.”
In 2003 Scott Neeson’s life was a dream.The high school drop-out from a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, Australia, who had been told his whole life he would never amount to anything, had worked his way up to being the president of 20th Century Fox International. He had a 7-figure income, drove a Porsche, and lived in the exclusive Brentwood neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Neeson said, “For someone who’d been told over and over he’d never amount to anything, to earn a million dollars and have this great lifestyle was something I’d never dreamed of.” But all of that was about to change. As People explains, a trip to Cambodia that very year would prompt Neeson to walk away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, and into a life devoted to saving some of the poorest children in the world.
It was in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, where he “stepped into a nightmare” in the Steung Meanchey garbage dump. He saw a little girl picking through the syringes and broken glass, dressed in nothing but rags, collecting scraps to sell for money to help feed her mother and younger sister. The little girl was 9-year-old Srey Nich, and along with her mother and sister lived and scrounged in the Steung Meanchey dump. Neeson told People he remembers thinking, “How could anyone survive here?”
The memory of Srey Nich and her family’s struggle brought Neeson back to Cambodia for a second time only a few months after his first visit. It was on this trip, while trying to save three sick children in the same dump he had first met Srey in, that the “excesses” of his life in Hollywood came into “sharp focus.” A call from an agent on his cell phone, explaining that his star client was having a total meltdown because his private jet was not “properly stocked” the way he wanted it to be was the only sign Neeson needed. He explains, “The actor said, ‘My life wasn’t meant to be this difficult.’ The kids I was with were very sick and here’s this movie star yelling.” Neeson decided then and there to leave his life, the million-dollar salary, the yacht, the A-list contacts, and the packed social calendar, and do something to serve a greater purpose.
Neeson founded the nonprofit organization Cambodian Children’s Fund in 2004, which in the last 10 years has helped “house, educate and provide health care for more than 1,450 children in the country’s most desperate slums.” He lives in a modest two-story house that also doubles as the offices for his organization, and he only leaves the country he has called home for the last 10 years for fund-raising missions. He spends every day overseeing the school, the 3 full-time doctors and 7 nurses at the free medical clinic, which treats more than 3,000 patients a month, and using his “formidable negotiating skills” to convince parents, who are often desperate and starving themselves, to enroll their children in the school or bring a sick family member to the clinic.
Neeson insists his life is better now than it ever was before. He says, “I guess I identify with [the kids] never believing they could do anything with their lives. They’ve been through so much, but they’re so hugely energetic and joyful. I’ve got more love in my life than I ever thought existed. My fear is what would have happened to me if I was still living a life all about me.” Although he does miss a lot of things about Hollywood, he “wouldn’t change this for the world.”
As for that first little girl Neeson met on his first trip to Cambodia 10 years ago, Srey Nich is now 18 years old and preparing to start college. Neeson used his own money to purchase a home for Srey and her family, and she was one of the first students at the CCF school. She gives Neeson the credit for changing everything for the better in her life. She says, “The dump was a very bad, dirty place. Now my life has changed. I can speak English with you, I have the opportunity to go to school. Everything is different.”