It’s been 15 years since former high-flying Hollywood exec Scott Neeson made his first visit to Cambodia, and saw the children who survived by scavenging in the Steung Meanchey garbage dump in Phnom Penh. What happened next could almost be the script of a Tinseltown movie itself. This highly successful businessman who had worked his way up to the pinnacle of the US film industry from a working-class suburb of Australia turned his back on it all to form the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).
That was 14 years ago, and the Fund is now responsible for changing the lives of hundreds of children, whose families are still dealing with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. CCF has reached a stage where some of its projects include initiatives on the scale of the Neeson Cripps Academy, a world-class education facility in the heart of Steung Meanchey. Funded by the Cripps Foundation, it opened last year and will educate about 300 students in years 8 to 12 in the latest science and STEM-based education programmes.
“It’s the best education facility in Cambodia and it’s in the poorest area in the country,” Scott notes. “We have chemistry, robotics, maths, green screen animation and coding.”
As with everything CCF does, the model and its impact on the community was carefully considered to provide pathways out of poverty while not being disruptive. And the organisation stays true to its core values: to provide education and leadership opportunities to empower the children it helps to be able to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Scott is also passionate about maintaining a grassroots, community-based approach to the 64 projects CCF operates. For example, a key part of the education programmes is making sure children are taught about values and wisdom, as well as getting a sense of Khmer culture.
One way the organisation does this is through its community-based “granny programme”, where people sponsor elderly women in the community, who then take on leadership roles with CCF children, sharing their knowledge of Khmer culture and traditions, as well as mentoring and guiding them and helping CCF identify where assistance is needed.
While making a difference is no doubt rewarding, it’s also traumatic being exposed to so much hardship and poverty. Ask Scott what keeps him motivated and his answer is simple.
“By the end of last year, I was getting towards burnout, so I cut together a lovely video of where the children had started and where they are now,” he says. “It’s seeing those kids.”
Join founder Scott Neeson at the Cambodian Children’s Fund 2018 Hong Kong Gala Dinner:
When: 2 November
Where: The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong
Theme: Child, Community & Family – The Three Pillars of the foundation since its inception in 2004
To find out more about the work of the CCF, go to cambodianchildrensfund.org.
See more in our Living in Hong Kong section:
This article first appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.