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Cambodia Kingdom

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dreamcatchers: A New Day, new lives

By K.C Johnson

The garbage dump in the Cambodian village of Stung Mean Chey still exists, and the work never ends.

Children spend all day, every day sifting through the squalor and stench, hoping to find enough redeemable material within the trash to bring home $10 per month for their families.

Less than two miles away, close enough to see the dump from their rooftop deck, a new day dawns for 47 children who have escaped their dreary existence thanks to the vision of one man and the generosity of strangers.

'I have a clean place to live, new and clean clothes, enough food and I get education. A very different life from what I had.'

Davy Hem, 14 years old The day begins with a shower and shampoo, a freshly cooked meal and camaraderie throughout the six-bedroom villa. Then comes Khmer school from 7 to 11 a.m., a walk back to their new home for lunch and English school from 1:15 to 4:30 p.m.

After school comes homework and housework, not to mention play time and shared stories of what these children, ages 6 to 21, now can achieve.

'I like to go to school and study both Khmer and English. I like to learn more so I can get a good job.'

Channa Chen, 11 years old One year ago, the Tribune profiled the efforts of Bill Smith, the official photographer for the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and the United Center. Fascinated by the Far East since his first trip there in 1991, Smith, 57, stumbled across the horrifying conditions at the Phnom Penh Municipal Garbage Dump in February 2002.

With financial help from friends and family, Smith helped empower 37 children with schooling, clothing and food at an annual cost of $600 per child. But, like those children he wanted to help, Smith always had bigger dreams.

'I could see what we were doing was helping them, but it wasn't enough,' Smith says. 'They couldn't take full advantage of their school because they had no place to study. They still were getting sick, drinking bad water, not getting enough food or sleep because they still lived in ramshackle conditions near the dump.

'I envisioned a shelter where kids could live during the week. When you live in homemade shacks and tents, anything's an upgrade. So I envisioned an empty storefront building where we put cots and had electricity, water and meals, and it would be huge.'

Kind of like readers' response.

Hearts opened Shortly after Smith's story ran, contributions started pouring in. People who long had worked in the same building with Smith had no idea what this quiet, humble man had been achieving for years.

'That's where true charity is, when you're doing things for people and nobody knows about it,' says Joe O'Neil, the Bulls' longtime senior director of ticket operations and a close friend of Smith's for 25 years.

Some officials from the three teams Smith works for made substantial contributions, wishing to remain anonymous. More common was the retired grandmother from Iowa, who scribbled a note to the Tribune saying she didn't have much to contribute but wanted to help.

In all, 160 readers each sent in $600 to sponsor a child. Many more offered general donations ranging from $25 to $5,000. In all, Smith said people he had never met contributed more than $150,000.

'Contributions were from all over the country, too, not just local,' Smith says. 'People's heartstrings were touched, and they wanted to help the kids.'

Thus, the work began in earnest for Smith; his wife, Lauren; his sister, Sharon Powell; and O'Neil and his wife, Susan, who were now on the board of a foundation called 'A New Day Cambodia.'

Smith and O'Neil traveled to Cambodia last February to scout out and secure a house they could rent, renovate and furnish. Cary Telander, the daughter of Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander, lived in Cambodia and served as an initial administrator.

They began the Keystone Kops adventure of setting up a home for 47 members of their new extended family.

'We called carpenters who made bunk beds, bought refrigerators and stoves and rice cookers,' Smith recalls. 'We asked around at markets and got good prices, but we bought one small rice cooker that became a running joke. You can't cook for 50 kids like that.

'You don't realize how much space you need in the kitchen to feed 50 kids, even though they're mainly eating rice and pork. We had to feel our way through. But we figured it out.

'Our fridge even has the little thing where you can get purified water out of the door.'

And on July 9, the A New Day Cambodia center opened its doors.

More to do Smith, by now well known when he visits the dump, hand-picked the children with the help of a local motorbike driver he and his wife have known for years, along with three teenage girls he and his wife removed from the dump five years ago. Those helpers speak the language and ...
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