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From Tinseltown to the Trash Heap: One Man, Big Change

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YouthGive contributing writer Matt Robertson shares his story from travels in Cambodia:

Words from pleading voices ring out: "Scott, take my child...take my child to study, please...please take him!" These words still echo in my mind a month after returning to the States from my exploration through Cambodia. Women bring their children up to us, asking for a chance at education for their child, as we tour through the garbage dumps looking for abandoned kids with no support. These images will stay with me forever.

This scene was one of many I witnessed while volunteering last month at the Cambodian Children's Fund in Phnom Penh. The experience provided for me an absolutely illuminating perspective, having grown up in a privileged Northern California community, taking excellent education for granted.

I had taken a year off from Pitzer College and used the opportunity to join my mother on a three-month sojourn throughout Southeast Asia. After she returned to California, I decided to continue exploring with one of my best friends. After lounging and soaking in the Indonesian culture and reveling in the backpackers highway for three weeks (good fun!), we decided it was time to look beneath the surface and see if we could return the gift of travel by somehow giving back to the part of the world we were blessed to be traveling in.

I had met Scott Neeson at a fundraiser for the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF) in San Francisco. During our brief exchange it was obvious that helping in Cambodia was his passion and life's work. The former President of 20th Century Fox International, Scott was used to the best Hollywood had to offer...big time money and lots of power. But then Scott traveled to Cambodia between job contracts, and this was the experience that would change his life forever.

During his initial stay, Scott witnessed soul searing poverty and brutal circumstances shocking to most of us in America. Seven months after returning to his new job, Scott said, "the virus had set in," and continuing his Hollywood life as before was clearly no longer an option. "This is simple," he told himself, "I have so much, and they have so little..." He sold everything and moved to Cambodia to help in whatever way he could.

YouthGive: From Tinseltown to the Trash Heap
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It is now six years later and Scott is busy at work using his skillful management in collaboration with a fantastic local staff to truly transform one of the poorest communities in Cambodia. Three thousand families in the Meanchey District of Phnom Phen suffer from extreme poverty, debt, sexual abuse and child trafficking, as well as vicious domestic violence. CCF is committed to taking the kids in the worst situations and providing them with education, medical care, a safe living environment, and essentially a second chance at life. And they are doing it.

But he can't help everyone...not yet.

Growing since it's founding in 2004, CCF now houses 515 children who previously lived on the dumps in four residential facilities. The facilities are complete with full-time staff, computer labs with learning software and educational tools such as books, pens and paper, white boards and vocabulary posters. Children in the program benefit from safe and secure shelter, a nutritional diet, medical treatment, dental services and vaccinations. Scott has also set up "Satellite Schools" which teach English to hundreds of the applicants on the waiting list still living in harsh conditions. The four facilities are now at their maximum capacity and the organization lacks sufficient funding to expand beyond their latest developments.

Some of these new developments CCF has introduced are programs that aim to uplift the whole community rather than focusing exclusively on the children. "You can't take a child out of the family and expect them to be good and balanced citizens," says Scott. CCF seems to be helping redefine exactly what "family" means in this society where virtually anyone in their 30's and older experienced the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. Many are missing an essential ingredient of wisdom passed down from generation to generation of child rearing skills and ethical behavior. CCF's new programs are directed towards educating local families with this essential knowledge and also providing nurturing environments for the children to have the opportunity to reach their fullest potentials.

Scott and the Cambodian staff have an uncanny ability to identify community needs and devise solutions that address them. A maternal care program now provides local women with childcare classes and basic necessities for caring for their newborns. A nursery provides a safe play and basic learning environment for preschool children ages 2-5. The "Engender Program" provides mothers with well-paid daytime jobs making tote bags as a way of livelihood. And the "Excelerators Program" provides extra-curricular educational opportunities that, in the past, have included two contingents of students who visited the Global Youth Leadership Summit in the United States.

However, the most impressive experience for me was witnessing the lively, vital Community Center built in the midst of the dump. At one corner CCF has provided a free clean water pump that acts as a convening place for the surrounding locals and has cut the infant mortality rate in HALF. Rice and soup can be bought daily at a discounted price, and the nursery buildings surround the border of a volleyball court. A medical building provides free medical check-ups (the only one in Cambodia to do so) and performs minor surgeries. Community "disco" dances are organized once a month with bright lights and good music that provide a safe and appropriate environment for boys and girls to meet each other and hang out at night. It has truly become the heart of the community.

Cambodia has been a major wake-up call for me. Working with CCF and engaging in cross-cultural exchange has provided me with a perspective I had previously lacked. I no longer take access to schooling for granted. I have truly realized that education is not my right; it is my privilege and an incredible gift that is up to me to take advantage of. For many of the young people I have met while traveling around Asia, going to college is their highest aspiration. Unfortunately most cannot afford the comparatively modest costs required for course tuition.

But perhaps the greatest lesson I have taken back with me from my travels is that despite the traditional differences each culture claims as their historical heritage, humanity shares a common thread in our fundamental needs for life. As the Internet and social media networks continue to expand to a global platform, it is easier than ever to learn about what is happening in the rest of the world and suddenly peoples problems are not so far away. Now, you CAN make a difference.

I asked Scott what might be the best way for someone to help contribute to CCF, knowing that most people do not have the opportunity to travel to Cambodia and see for themselves what needs to be done. His answer surprised me: "Just being aware of what is going on out there makes the biggest difference." Being home now I feel those words resonate within me. By knowing what some people live through on a daily basis there has been a deep shift in priorities in myself and smaller things I was previously preoccupied with seem to no longer hold as much weight.

But that being said, CCF still greatly benefits from any kind of donation, and I was impressed by what they can do with just a little financial support. Even with a small donation you can provide two young children with education for a month. Thirty dollars can feed a child suffering from malnutrition and $1200 covers an entire year of expenses in the program.

A child's resilience is a fantastic inspiration to witness. With just a little attention and the right environment, a child who used to pick trash everyday can grow up with aspirations to better their culture's way of life, and have the skills to do so. The kids and young adults at CCF proved this to me every single day of my time there. All children have incredible potential, yet most lack appropriate resources to nurture it.

"Is this all it takes to change the lives of two children?" Scott reflected in his early days in Phnom Penh. Five hundred and fifteen children later, he is working harder than ever to provide these kids with the resources they need to become Cambodia's next generation of movers and shakers.