Bulls' Smith and O'Neil give Cambodian children a new day

When Smith and O'Neil return to Cambodia later this month, one of the latest initiatives for the shelter will be to help provide vocational opportunities for some of the children there.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

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Smith, Lanier, O'Neil
Hall of Famer Bob Lanier presented the Bulls' Bill Smith and Joe O'Neil with the league's Value of the Game Award, a prestigious honor recognizing outstanding community service, on Tuesday.

Bill Smith, the official photographer for the Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears and United Center, and Joe O'Neil, the Bulls ticket director, Tuesday received the NBA's Value of the Game award for their work in helping rescue about 100 children in Cambodia and providing group homes and educational opportunities.

I've known Bill and Joe some 25 years, and I know if it were up to them, they'd probably melt down the award and cash it in for more funds for the work they've done in Cambodia.

You don't do these types of wonderful things for awards, and I know Bill and Joe almost are embarrassed to accept credit for something they are doing only to help others.

I understand, and so do many others in what often seems like a world gone mad with wars and economic disaster.

My wife and I adopted a child from China who needed surgery about five years ago. We did so because we could do it and wanted to. We've since met dozens of Americans who have done the same. I recall thinking at the time about all the stories I hear from NBA players—even Barack Obama—of being raised by grandparents or relatives who were older and had other jobs at the same time. You do these things because you want to or you can or you have to. But it's a great part of the unappreciated American spirit. Americans routinely step forward to help others because it is the right things to do.

Which is how all of that got started by Bill and his wife, Lauren.

They'd come upon the garbage dump in Stung Mean Chey, Cambodia, where kids scavenged all day looking for plastic or recyclables that would earn their families about $10 per month. Bill and Lauren were in the process of sponsoring children from Cambodia and adopted twin boys from an orphanage there.

But they decided to do something to help others, and it was A New Day Cambodia, a non-profit organization and shelter to provide food, services and education for some of these impoverished children.

The first effort resulted in a staffed home where 47 of the "garbage dump" children went to live with payments of $10 per month to their families to offset the "income" the kids were providing. The children, literally, learned to use bathroom facilities and homes; received clothing and education in English and their native language. Subsequently, donations provided enough to purchase, equip and staff a second shelter with the total number of children now about 100.

There are funds for perhaps 40 more children with efforts to expand the operation and Bill and Joe among those returning again later this month to meet with staff there.

"Bill is the one who started it all," said O'Neil. "So we feel very privileged to be able to help these people and to be able to help Bill and Lauren."

It's a wonderful effort, and hardly unique in the NBA or among Americans everywhere.

Everyone cannot do these types of things or make these efforts. Guys like Bill and Joe are hardly the kind to expect everyone to. They have the jobs of a lifetime, Bill photographing all the great events in the United Center and with the Chicago teams, and Joe as the man behind the Bulls tickets, arguably the nation's most popular man during the Michael Jordan years. You can be sure he was asked then for more favors than the president.

They understand how fortunate they are to be able to have the jobs they do and have work as almost play.

They know few are so fortunate.

But—and they will tell you—like many Americans, the chance to help, however small, is a blessing. We have the best opportunities in this country, and despite what others may think, the hearts of so many here are open to the world.

We all know people like Bill and Joe and their families, and they also know when they get the kind of recognition they did in Phoenix Tuesday, it was too much because it was such a labor of love for them.

"It's been a great thing because it also helps publicize our efforts," said O'Neil. "Steve Schanwald (Bulls vice president) was kind enough to recommend us and it is great because it also helps us raise awareness."

The Bulls also are one of the prime sponsors of A New Day Cambodia, one of the many social efforts and global outreach the NBA has promoted over the years, though the Smiths' initiative came through their exploration and interest in the families of Cambodia.

"The Values of the Game Award gives us a chance to recognize the great work that our teams' employees are doing off the court and outside the arena," said Chris Granger, NBA senior vice president for team marketing and business operations. "The tremendous effort by Bill and Joe, and the impact it will have on the children of Cambodia, underscores the passion that the larger NBA family has for the world community."

When Smith and O'Neil return to Cambodia later this month, one of the latest initiatives for the shelter will be to help provide vocational opportunities for some of the children there.

"Some of the kids can't be students," noted O'Neil of so many missing primary building block education for their entire life until being taken in by A New Day Cambodia. "So can you teach a trade so they can get a job? As kids get older and out of school, what do you do?"

There are many questions and issues remaining, and, of course, still many children who need help. In Cambodia, where Bill alone has made 30 trips, and elsewhere. We see the stories daily from Africa and the Middle East, and the suffering seemingly is endless and hopeless.

But as Bill and Joe and so many others know, you can't help everyone.

But you can help someone.

So that's what they set out to do. Not for the publicity and not for the attention, and certainly not for the recognition. But simply because it was something they could do and wanted to do. They know it's not for everyone, and no one need feel any less because they cannot. It's a personal commitment, and no more. But it's a terrific initiative and I'm glad they can do it. There are many, many others all over the United States doing equally wonderful work. I'm proud of all of them and for our country.

If you are interested in A New Day Cambodia, the web address is: www.anewdaycambodia.org.


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