• Watch entire two-part documentary here
“I mean hell on Earth. Itʼs apocalyptic. I used to tell people it would be like a scene after World War III, after the nuclear holocaust. You donʼt feel like youʼre on Earth.”
-- Bill Smith
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Itʼs a vast wasteland of trash, poverty and disease; a mountain of garbage, a world without hope.
Itʼs a place youʼd never want to visit, let alone live your life. And yet, that is the reality for hundreds of Cambodians whose dead-end existence brought them to a place where only a miracle can save them.
Or a man with a camera who wanted to help.
Bill Smith, the longtime team photographer for the Chicago Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks found the Phnom Penh garbage dump while visiting Cambodia 10 years ago. Think of the dirtiest place in the United States, multiply it by 20 and that is where these people work and live -- many of them children, who scavenge through the garbage for 30 cents a day, enough to buy morsels of food.
Itʼs the kind of scene you canʼt forget. Bill certainly couldn't. It changed his life -- and because of him -- has since transformed the lives of over 100 children from the garbage dump.
He and Chicago Bulls executive Joe OʼNeil have created “A New Day Cambodia,”
a center two miles from the garbage dump that provides free shelter, food and education for children who once had nothing.
Now they have a chance at life -- which is everything.
“The look and sparkle in their eyes is the just the biggest difference,” Smith said. “Hopelessness becomes hope for the future and itʼs not just that they are clean. They have a whole different persona. They hold their head higher, they have pride, they take care of themselves and feel more human than they were before.”Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT, Comcast SportsNet will air “From the Sports World to the Third World: A Journey to Cambodia,”
a two-part documentary that takes you inside the garbage dump as well as the center for A New Day Cambodia.
In Part 1, youʼll meet people like Sokha Chen, who was orphaned at the age of 9, and was living on the side of a road with her brother for six months. After her brother died, she made her way to the garbage dump where Smith found her in 2007. Five years later sheʼs thriving at a New Day Cambodia. She goes to one of the best private schools in the country, she was recently featured in Newsweek as one of 150 women who “shake the world,” and last year traveled to the White House where she met first lady Michelle Obama.
The metamorphosis from one child to the next is extraordinary.
“Iʼll never forget the day we went out and picked up these children at these shacks and literally the parents said good-bye to their children,” OʼNeill recalls. “I think we moved about 15 or 16 kids in the first trip. These kids had to learn how to use a toilet. They had never used showers before. We had hired a staff here and we were scared beyond belief.”
Smith and OʼNeil had no experience in starting or running a charity, let alone 8,000 miles away from their homes in Chicago.
“I was worried. My intentions were good, but maybe we had made a mess of things, maybe we had made a mess of their lives,” Smith said. “We didn't know what we were doing. We took them away from their parents, we turned their lives upside down, we donʼt really know what weʼre doing, we have no experience in this, but it worked.”
In Part 2 on Wednesday, we follow along as Smith and OʼNeil go into the slums of the garbage dump to choose four more children to bring to the center.
One of the kids is a malnourished 7-year-old boy named Mey-Mey who was living with his mother and five siblings in a one-room shack with barely any possessions.
Smith says that he feels like heʼs “playing God” when he decides which children to rescue. Looking inside the home of Mey-Mey, he knew immediately the difference he and OʼNeil could make in the young boyʼs life.
“This puts donation money to work in a way that every single penny will count for this boy,” said Smith, standing outside the family’s shack, which was surrounded by garbage.
“This means the world to this family. Itʼs like giving them a million dollars, or a thousand dollars a week for life. They have absolutely nothing, and now theyʼre going to have their youngest child go to school.”
At home, Smith and OʼNeil have their minds set on their full-time jobs back in Chicago. However, a large part of their hearts are always with those who they have saved thousands of miles away.
“This is not a charity that you do for a year or two, or a dinner you support and then say, ʻHeck with it.ʼ We have 100 children here and they aren't going away,” OʼNeil said. “We want to send everyone on their way where they can self-sustain and start a family, provide for that family, provide for their former family and improve not only their life but elevate their country and give back to their country and other children and help the new kids coming along.”
Smith has made a career out of taking photographs of some of the most iconic figures in Chicago sports history: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Derrick Rose, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon.
They are heroes for their achievements. The same should be said for Smith and OʼNeil. Athletes affect lives.
These two men are changing them.
“People are neglected, and for some weird reason, Joe and I, weʼve figured out how to do this,” Smith said. “And we feel a responsibility now. Like we actually know how to go out to a garbage dump and pick out kids and deal with the parents, and it’s just kind of an unusual talent that we have learned. They have become part of our family. Itʼs an extension of our family over here and what we get out of it is coming to see our extended family and watch them prosper.”
, Chuck Garfien
, Chicago Blackhawks
, Chicago Bulls
, Michael Jordan
, White House
, Chicago Bears
, Derrick Rose
, Walter Payton
, scottie pippen
, Michelle Obama
, Dennis Rodman
, Jim McMahon
, Bill Smith
, Joe O'Neil
, Journey to Cambodia
, Phnom Penh