Excerpt from “To Cambodia, With Love,” by Shannon Sexton, Yoga + Joyful Living (Fall 2009):
When millionaire movie executive Scott Neeson took a backpacking trip through Cambodia in 2003, he didn’t expect to land on a garbage dump. What he saw on the outskirts of Phnom Penh changed his life: hundreds of children—some as young as three years old—somber, sick, smeared in grime, scavenging for recyclables in the smoky wasteland of Steung Meanchey, a toxic dump site that spans eight football fields and is more than 100 feet deep.
Abandoned, orphaned, or sent here to work by their families, these children toil for 12 hours a day or longer, earning about 30¢—enough for a bowl of rice. They scorch their feet on smoldering garbage as they wade through hospital and industrial waste, shards of glass, used condoms, rancid food, and feces. Pimps lurk at the edge of the dump, hoping to lure them into brothels. Their parents—if they have any—are the youngest survivors of the blood-drenched era of the Khmer Rouge; alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence are woven into the fabric of their everyday lives. The most heartbreaking statistic? Only 27 percent of these children survive.
Few of us would consider selling our house, our car, our cherished possessions, and moving here—to one of the most polluted places on the planet, shrouded in smog so thick it coats the taste buds and sears the lungs; a place where flies rise up in black clouds and children are run over by garbage trucks.
Even fewer of us would fund schools for these children with our own money or work long days and weekends with no end in sight, fortified only by the knowledge that we’re making a difference.
…He told PBS the real turning point came when, during a visit to Cambodia, he received an "emergency" call from LA. "My phone rang, and it was my office, and the actor who was on tour was having quite a serious meltdown because the private jet didn’t have the right amenities for him. He didn’t want to get on the jet." The actor was quoted as saying, "My life wasn’t meant to be this difficult."
"And I thought, I don’t want this to be my world. This isn’t my reality anymore."