You now have citizenship of four countries. So are you Scottish, Australian, American or Cambodian?
Last movie you saw?
Grand Budapest Hotel - what a great movie. Loved it.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Chuck Norris movies.
Espresso, chocolate and staying up too late.
Something people don’t know about you:
I usually buy around 10 birthday cakes per week (it's my own money in case anyone is wondering).
How did you get your start in the film industry?
I got a job in Adelaide delivering movie posters for a company who operated drive-in cinemas.
Last book that you read?
I'm reading 'The Giant Within' by Tony Robbins. Tony has been a great friend and supporter over the years.
“But suddenly you’re ripped into being alive. And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but my god you’re alive and it’s spectacular.” ~ Joseph Campbell
When Hollywood marketing executive Scott Neeson embarked on a sabbatical between jobs in 2003, he couldn’t have imagined how it would change his life.
In Phnom Penh, Scott saw hundreds of children and their families living and working on the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, one of the most toxic environments imaginable. It was a moment that changed his life.
Scott had a 26-year-career in the film business, including tenure as president of 20th Century Fox International, where he oversaw the release and marketing of several of the top films of all time — 'Braveheart,' 'Titanic,' 'Star Wars' and 'X-men'. Scott thought he had it all - a powerful role in the film industry, celebrity friends, a big house, fancy cars and a boat.
But in 2003, Scott’s view on life changed completely when he found himself looking out across the Steung Meanchey garbage dump.
“The moment I stepped there it was the single most impactful moment in my life. I was standing there facing into the abyss. The smell was almost visible.There’s this sudden moment when you realise it’s people - it’s children and they’re working. There were kids everywhere. In some cases, they’d been left there by parents that didn’t want them. They’d be going through the rubbish looking for recyclables, metals, plastic bottles making maybe 25 cents a day.”
Soon after, Scott made the decision to resign from his job, sell all of his possessions and focus his energy and passion into Cambodian Children’s Fund. Twelve years later and Scott’s journey still captivates, inspires and bewilders people from all over the world.
If you had the chance to go back and do it all again, would you?
Yeah, I would. Even if it wasn’t thousands of kids. Even if it was only twenty kids, I’d do it all over again. There are some individuals that I would do it for alone, and I’ve told them that.
It’s enormously satisfying how it has all come together now. Community leaders are feeding children, the grandmothers are helping teach values to young children, World Housing is setting up model communities, people are getting on, there’s a real satisfaction in how the interdependence between the programs works. People are taking accountability and responsibility, especially the young teens. You can see the next generation start to blossom here.
What has brought you the most joy over the past decade in Cambodia?
The greatest joy for me is being able to see that the children who were working on the garbage dump when I first came here are now studying at university, reaching their potential. Many of those first children are working in decent jobs, and are able to support their families.
Even just yesterday, the first girl I took off the dump when she was ten, she posted a picture of her first paycheck on facebook. She’s studying at uni and working during the day.
How do you look back on your Hollywood days?
I’m really glad I did the Hollywood thing, it was a great time and I could never regret it. But it was simply time to move on to the next adventure. All my time there, everything I’d done beforehand, lead to the point of coming here to start CCF. The corporate world, marketing, hard-nosed business - it all helped when I decide to start this ambitious task.
What have been the greatest highlights?
There a hundreds of highlights, but they are all individual stories. The growth of the organisation and our achievements I do love - whether its Charity Navigator, fantastic reviews, the way people applaud the way CCF is run - but the highlights are all individual stories.
Seeing one boy who had a tough upbringing and was a bit difficult - he’s now studying law, he is passionate about civil rights and he works every weekend in our Community Relations department. That’s a highlight.
Seeing our schools on a Sunday - where classes are purely optional - full of students eager to learn, and our older students are there on their own time, teaching classes. I could never have imagined that.
I know that photography is very important to you. Can you tell me about that?
Photography is my personal passion. Part of the reason I take so many photographs is so that every child will have memories from their childhood. If you go around the community, every home with CCF kids in it - and there are thousands - has photos of the kids that live there, and often awards from school, covering the walls. It may look dark and dismal, but there is colour and hope.
In the early days of CCF, you were known for being out in the community every day. Do you still get out as much as you used to?
I still get out into the community at least 6 nights a week when I am in town. It’s never as much as I’d like - my days are filled with meetings, phone calls, emails. But the evenings are my own, I spend them down in the community, getting to know the families. There’s always a child that’s been left there, or a grandmother in a difficult situation, families facing homelessness.
Is CCF still as personal for you as it was before?
Yes. It is. Its a dichotomy in that to run the organisation well, you’ve got to spend time focusing on programs, operations, sustainability, so there is a lot more of the corporate side to manage, but the relationship with families, children, grandmothers are stronger now than ever before.
What advice do you have for people who want to do something similar, to follow their passion and do something differently?
I would advise them to take a good, deep look inside. If you are looking to heal something inside yourself, don’t do it, because this kind of work can crush you, it is very, very emotional. If you are trying to get away from a problem, don’t do it, because your problems move with you. With that said, I would encourage anyone to chase after their dreams.
What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is that Cambodia loses its culture to globalisation, if our kids forgot their values and their outlook on life, their basic joys, because despite what has happened to them, they are the happiest kids I’ve seen.
If all of a sudden life became about getting an iPhone, the latest app, it would be a real shame. There is a real innocence to the joy here. It’s uncomplicated, there’s no entitlement, there’s such a rawness to life.
Do you see Phnom Penh as home?
I never imagined myself growing old here, but there are a significant number of CCF kids that I couldn’t imagine not being here to see them grow up, or me growing old without them. It’s family.
Do you ever get away from it all?
For a very long time I haven’t been very good at getting away. I don’t have much of a social life. I live on my own, I work very long hours, and I like to stay home once I get home. But I’m learning to get away now. I plan to spend more time outside of Phnom Penh, maybe 2 or 3 months of the year, for my own health and perspective, as well as fundraising. But I won’t be going anywhere, my family is here.
What’s like being in a position where you are always having to ask for money?
I really don’t like it, and it is exacerbated by having to walk that line between the poorest people in the world and the richest. I would love for some of those with wealth to spend some time out here, because I know, in their own hearts they are good people, but they need something to spur them on.
When I setup the organisation, I worked out the budgets to be around $100,000 per year, and I figured I could personally always fund that for the rest of my days. But after three years, the need for our services grew and grew, and the money was gone. All of a sudden, I go from having lots of money to having to ask people for money, and that was very difficult. But it’s very motivational when you have kids who are hungry.
What has brought you the most frustration?
People trying to “guess” what my real motivation is. A lot of people look for alternative agendas on my part as to why I did this, but I think after eleven years, there shouldn’t be any doubt left. There is no secret motivation, it’s not anything except this desire to do something special here - it certainly wasn’t for money, it wasn’t for fame.
What do you want for the future?
I want to be around to see these children thrive. I want this to become long-term, sustainable, I don’t want to have to worry about next years funding. I want the people who have made CCF what it is to get recognition, both CCF staff and people externally, many of whom support CCF very quietly.