A New Day Dawns

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Story by Anne Stein | Photos by Bill Smith | 05.25.10

They are the poorest of the poor in Cambodia, a nation that until recently was wracked by civil war, occupation and genocide.

Drawn from the countryside to the capital city in a desperate attempt to find work, thousands of men, women and children end up at the Phnom Penh Municipal Garbage Dump, picking through trash from dawn to dusk to earn $10 a month for their scraps.

When Bill Smith and his wife Lauren saw the dump in 2002, they were stunned — but quickly decided they’d help at least one child by enrolling her in a local school and paying her mother the wages her daughter once earned.

Today, that one child has grown to nearly 100 sponsored children, and A New Day Cambodia, the foundation that the Smith’s founded with the help of Joe O’Neil, Bulls senior director of ticket operations, houses, feeds, educates and clothes girls and boys who once toiled at the dump.

A New Day Cambodia

The expected lifespan of those living and working in and around the dumps is about age 40, due to TB, lung cancer and other diseases.

A long journey

Smith, who is the official photographer for the United Center, the Bulls, the Bears and the Blackhawks, started going to Southeast Asia as a tourist in 1991 after shooting the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Of all the nations he visited, he took his most intriguing photos in Cambodia. “The whole thing was fascinating to me,” he says. “I was there during the first election. There had been genocide, then an occupying army for 10 years. There were truckloads of soldiers guarding the streets. You felt like you were in a CNN newsreel or a National Geographic film.”

He kept returning, once or twice a year, always hiring a motorbike driver to take him around. After he got married, he started bringing his wife, Lauren, on the trips and started photographing other things. “I had plenty of pictures of rice paddies and temples so we went to other places – orphanages, a shop where they made prosthetics. At one orphanage, there were babies on the floor in broken bassinets; in another, they were hanging from nets, with dogs and cats walking around.”

The two went back to one particular orphanage to spend time with the kids, bringing with them rice and clean water. They fell in love with the children and decided to adopt a boy, which wasn’t allowed at the time and can still be a very difficult proposition. (Today, Bill and Lauren Smith are the proud adoptive parents of twin eight-year-old boys, Veasna and Samnang.)

During numerous trips back and forth to negotiate the adoption, Smith was on the lookout for new photo opportunities. It was 2002, when his motorbike driver said he wanted to show the Smiths something they would never forget. Bill and Lauren agreed, and the driver brought them to the Phnom Penh garbage dump, located 20 miles outside the capital in a village called Stung Mean Chey. The “homes” in the village are simply open rooms on stilts, with no electricity or running water, located next to the dump.

“There were a couple thousand people there, many young children, half naked,” Smith says. “We were devastated by the appalling conditions and the site of the kids walking over glass, barefoot, walking through garbage. I took a bunch of pictures, afraid that the police would arrive any minute, because who’d want their country shown like this?”

It was an apocalyptic site, with fires burning, a horrible stench and dirty children and adults dressed in rags, picking through refuse that was often waist-high.

The two returned to their hotel later that day and decided on a plan; they’d pick out one girl and support her. They went back to the dump the next day, found a 10-year-old girl, who for some reason seemed like the right choice, and had their driver explain that they wanted to support her and send her to school.

When they finally found the girl’s mother and told her what they wanted to do, they discovered that the girl lived with her sister and another little girl whose parents had died (the lifespan of those living and working at the dump is about age 40, due to TB, lung cancer and other diseases). Bill and Lauren decided to sponsor all three girls.

“We asked the mom how much the girls made, told her we’d give her that, and we’d put the girls in English school and buy them uniforms,” Smith explains. In Cambodia, knowing English is a ticket to middle class life and a good job. The Smiths also bought mosquito nets, mats, plastic buckets, chairs, soap and shampoo for the girls, along with a battery attached to a fluorescent light so they could study at night. They entrusted the driver with enough money to fund the girls’ schooling for six months and returned home.

“We felt good about it and figured we’d come back and visit,” Smith says. Six months later they came back and visited the three girls at school. The three stood up in their bright, clean uniforms, smiling and happy, and recited the English alphabet.

Spreading the word

The Smiths would return to Chicago and tell friends about the dump and the children. They’d show them photos, and tell them about trying to adopt. “Everyone started handing me money so they could sponsor a child, and then we’d go back and choose more kids. It kept growing and growing. When we went there, Cambodian parents would come up and ask us to sponsor their kids. We couldn’t turn them down.”

The kids, however, were still living in shacks at the dump. “So we decided we wanted to rent a building,” says Smith. By this time, Joe O’Neil and his wife, Susan, who’d seen the photos of the dump and the children, decided to sponsor a child. But O’Neil wanted to get more deeply involved in the fundraising aspect, and in June 2006 he organized a huge event at which Smith showed his photos.

Set to music, the show started with shots of United Center events, from the Rolling Stones to Michael Jordan dunking. Then, Smith showed the audience some of his travel photos from Burma and Vietnam. And then he brought everyone to the orphanage and introduced the children the Smiths hoped to adopt. Finally, he showed photos of the garbage dump. It left the audience in tears (Smith still presents the show today at fundraisers for the foundation.)

The Chicago Tribune sports editor at the time, Dan McGrath, was at that show and, like everyone else, was deeply moved by what he saw. On Christmas Eve in 2006, the Tribune printed a story by Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson about the dump and Smith’s efforts to help pluck kids out poverty by giving them an education.

At the time, there were 22 children supported by friends and relatives of the Smiths. Within a few weeks of the story running, more than $100,000 poured in from around the country, and Smith’s cell phone kept ringing with more offers of help.

That’s when the Smiths and the O’Neils decided they could actually fulfill their dreams of opening a shelter. The time was right, so they went through all the legal procedures to set up a foundation, which they named A New Day Cambodia.

The Bulls were only too eager to lend a helping hand to this worthy cause, and annually the team contributes financial and other forms of support to the foundation. With an assist from the Bulls, O’Neil and Smith were able to find and rent a proper home, buy sheets, mattresses, stoves, light fixtures and everything else needed to furnish it.

The two then talked to the parents or guardians of all 22 children to get their permission to move the children out of the dump and into the six-bedroom, six-bath house.

“We had to sell them on the idea, take them on tours of the house and have others vouch for our credibility,” says Smith. Since the house could hold up to 46 children (it was the one-time villa of a doctor), they found another 24 children working and living at the dump who wanted an education. They then hired a cook, a nanny, a security guard and a director.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” says Smith modestly.

A New Day Cambodia

Stung Mean Chey is a village about 20 miles outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s largest city. All day, every day, villagers young and old sift through mounds of trash in search of scraps that can that can be recycled, earning each approximately $10 per month.

A dream come true: The first home opens

In July, O’Neil and Smith went back and officially opened the house, which is located about 15 minutes from the dump, and moved the first group of children in. “We’d go to these shacks in the middle of the dump, and the boys and girls would be sitting with a little bag of all of their belongings, ready to jump on a motor bike and say goodbye to their parents,” explains O’Neil, who also serves as the foundation’s vice president. (His wife Susan is treasurer.)

With the foundation now firmly established, they set a target goal of housing at least 100 children and, in 2008, opened a second center and filled that with kids. Today there are 58 girls in one home and 38 boys in another, all attending school and freed from what would have been a short lifetime of scavenging for scraps seven days a week at Stung Mean Chey. (Though children can be sponsored for $600/year, it actually costs more than double that for expenses.)

The students, ages 7-22, go to school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, attending private schools in the morning and coming back for English lessons in the afternoon in rooms converted to classrooms in each center. There’s a full-time staff of 14, along with nine computers and a full-time computer teacher. Volunteers teach a variety of classes, from quilting and arts and crafts to geography and photography. There’s a boys and girls soccer team, and the children have supervised Facebook pages and WordPress blogs to communicate with sponsors and to practice their English.

“These were once grubby kids you could hardly recognize. Now that they’ve gotten a fair shot at life, their personalities have really emerged,” says Smith.

To college and beyond

An Australian dentist comes once a month to work on the kids’ teeth, while several physician groups do checkups and inoculations. One child has gone on to a technical college, and the plan is to send the others on to college or vocational training once they’ve completed high school.

Twelve of the children visited the luxurious Raffles Hotel, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to learn about jobs in the country’s growing tourism industry, which needs educated, English-speaking Cambodians much like them.

The kids have gone on trips to the ocean and shopping malls, on boat rides and to temples. “The kids had never seen this stuff – they didn’t know how to flush a toilet or use a shower,” says Smith. “Now we have kids who want to be doctors and dentists and accountants. I tell Joe it’s like we have our own MTV ‘Real World’ house here!”

While Smith is enthusiastic about the foundation, he tends to deflect all the attention to the kids and staff. But Cindy Szadokierski—who first heard about Smith’s efforts back in December 2006, then went on to sponsor several children and later became an honorary board member— tells friends that Bill Smith “is proof positive that one person can make a difference.”

Szadokierski, who’s United Airlines’ VP of airport operations planning and United Express, has since visited the children many times with her family. “The smell, the burning of your eyes, seeing the movement of the children as they walk through water in their bare feet, picking stuff up off the ground and putting it in their mouth — I really don’t think the pictures do it justice,” she says, recalling the first time she visited the dump.

On the other hand, visiting the children in the two centers, bringing them gifts of toothpaste, dental floss and other treats, and taking them on field trips to the ocean “is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s really given me a purpose.”

“I’ve lived a blessed life,” says Szadokierski, “so for me to be able to give my time and see these kids grow and learn means so much. Bill and Joe are huge heroes.”

Judi McCarthy also serves as an honorary board member and, along with her husband, sponsors two children. She’s visited five times. “I can’t wait to see their smiles,” says McCarthy, VP of sales for Best Travel. “It’s amazing that if you give a child the chance to learn, they’ll pay you back 100 times over. The whole project is so incredibly special.”

Smith and O’Neil continue their trips to Cambodia every six months, making sure that things are running smoothly for the children and staff. “The kids affect you in different ways,” says O’Neil. “I think I’ve gotten more out of the whole deal than they have.”

Smith says he’s surprised how many sponsors – some two dozen – have visited Cambodia and met “their kids” in person. “It’s fun to show them around,” he says. “There’s nothing like actually going there.”

For more information

To learn more about A New Day Cambodia, please go to: www.anewdaycambodia.org, where you can see more pictures of Cambodia, the dump and portraits of the boys and girls who attend school and live at the foundation’s two centers.

Donations to the foundation can be made via PayPal on the Web site or by mail, to: A New Day Cambodia, P.O. Box 2986, Chicago, IL, 60654.

Bill Smith