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Hollywood mogul and LDS missionaries bring hope to Cambodian children

By Carole Mikita  |  Posted Nov 25th, 2009 @ 10:00pm


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CAMBODIA -- One of Hollywood's biggest moguls gave up that life a few years ago to help the poorest children in Cambodia. A Utah couple, Latter- day Saint missionaries serving there, stepped forward to help him.

Freelance producer and photographer, Trent Harris, traveled there last month to help us bring you their story.

Scott Neeson walks through the slums in Cambodia's capitol city, collecting children. They live in a garbage dump. Born in Edinburgh and raised in Australia, the now American citizen has spent the last five years rescuing hundreds of children, building the schools where they now learn.

It's a far cry from his previous work. Neeson spent 10 years at 20th Century Fox, eventually becoming president of international releases. He managed Hollywood successes like "Titanic," "Braveheart," "X-Men," and the new "Star Wars" trilogy. He then went to Sony Pictures. Life in Hollywood was good.

"I was very wealthy, yes. I had a very good salary there, very nice house in Brentwood. I was doing very nicely, yes," he tells Harris. Then with a laugh he says, "Not so much now, no."

In 2003, Neeson traveled to Cambodia for several weeks. That trip changed his life. One year later, he sold the mansion, the luxury cars -- everything -- and moved to Cambodia.

"It feels like something I was meant to do," he says.

He started with the Cambodian Children's Fund school, of which there are now three others, then vocational training. That's when he sent an e- mail to other humanitarian organizations in the country for help. Mike and Kathy Johnson of West Jordan were serving an LDS mission as country directors for LDS humanitarian work in Cambodia. Their efforts were helping organizations like Neeson's. They came together. Neeson took them to the garbage dump.

"The Latter-day Saints in Cambodia, it was Elder Johnson back then, worked very hard for us. He actually got us the Star Bakery oven, and then they followed up with facilitating the flour, the nutrient enhancer. Got all the extras, the accessories, the utensils for us. They stayed with us for the whole thing. They really pulled it together for us," Neeson says.

Besides the equipment, the Johnsons helped find workers for Star Bakery.

"He had to fire some staff because they weren't the role models he wanted for his children. And, so, when we found that out, we said, 'Well, we know some people,'" Johnson says.

Half the staff became returned LDS missionaries.

Neeson's vision for the children includes helping their mothers develop skills.

"That was kind of the first thing that we did with Scott," Johnson says. "We donated those 10 sewing machines. In fact, those are on the upper floor of the bakery."

Neeson hadn't known anything about the faith and was impressed with the missionaries' business knowledge.

"It was very pragmatic, it was very well thought out," he says. "And the implementation was impeccable. It was a real surprise, a real surprise. I know now that it's very much a part of Latter-day Saints."

Kathy Johnson says of the Cambodian people, "They have needs and feelings and dreams and hopes, just like anybody else."

Neeson says the vocational facility is now producing 175 nutrient- enhanced loaves every day. More than a dozen young people have found jobs in a commercial bakery or restaurant; and from the restaurant training course, another 20 have found work. He began with a goal of helping 45 children; now there are 496.

"You see the magical resilience in these kids. It goes beyond a sort of rational explanation. They come out of the worst backgrounds and they are just so full of joy," Neeson says.

He says the human condition -- in all its degradation -- exists there, with help. "You give someone dignity, respect and hope, they will change. They can do anything."

Neeson says he would like to take the Cambodian model to other countries, including Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Mike and Kathy Johnson are now missionaries at the Family History Library.

E-mail: cmikita@ksl.com

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