Commentary

Humanity in focus

Photographer for Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears helping change lives in Cambodia

Updated: February 1, 2011, 6:17 PM ET
By Sahadev Sharma | ESPNChicago.com

Trash extended as far as the eyes could see. Hundreds of workers, many of them children, half-naked and bare foot, waded through the filth. They were accompanied by rats and snakes as they slaved beneath a scorching sun that brought temperatures topping 100 degrees. Flies enveloped the dump, the children wiping them off their arms as though they were pulling up the sleeves of a dress shirt. The end goal of the endeavor was to scavenge out tiny treasures: a minuscule piece of plastic, a scrap of steel, a fragment of glass, anything they could gather and sell at the end of the day. A young girl with sad eyes scooped through some slop, looking for particles of food that could be sold and used as cattle feed.

[+] EnlargeNew Day Cambodia
Bill SmithBill Smith was so moved by seeing children working a garbage dump for articles they could sell that he decided to act, and his actions helped change lives.

This was the scene that Bill Smith and his wife Lauren witnessed during one of their trips to Cambodia back in the summer of 2002. They had been taken to Stung Mean Chey dump, truly a name apropos of such a display, by their driver, Chat Kong, who suggested that they go see "the children." This was not what Smith and his wife had expected when they took his advice.

"I kind of knew that it existed. I vaguely remember seeing a picture like that in National Geographic," said Smith. "But it doesn't really hit home until you're standing there."

Smith is the team photographer for the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls. He's made a living shooting the brilliance of Devin Hester, Jonathan Toews and Michael Jordan competing against the most famous athletes in the world on the biggest stage.

He's not one to be intimidated by a moment, until that one life-changing day. Smith and his wife were horrified by what they'd seen at the dump in the tiny village just outside Phnom Penh. They were practically in tears.

They had been traveling to different parts of Southeast Asia for more than a decade at the urging of friend Gary Fencik, the former Chicago Bears safety. In his downtime, Smith would take pictures for pleasure in these exotic locales. He'd been to Vietnam, India and numerous other countries, but he was always drawn to Cambodia.

Normally chatty about what they had seen during their daily exploits, the Smiths instead sat in silence on their drive back to the hotel. They knew they had to do something and decided to go back to the dump the next day and pick out a child to support. They realized they were being na´ve. They knew helping one child would hardly make a dent in the dire scenes they had witnessed, but they didn't feel right sitting idly by while such unspeakable sadness was unfolding.

The following day, Kong drove them back to the dump, where Lauren saw a girl in a red hat. She had remembered seeing the girl working hard the day before, her sad eyes branded in Lauren's memory. Kong brought the terrified girl over and helped translate between the Smiths and the young girl. After learning their intentions, the shy girl, whose name they learned was Sreyna, eventually agreed to take them to her home. She led them through a shanty town, and they came upon a tiny shack constructed from corrugated tin and had no running water or electricity. Sreyna's mother was not at home, she was out working as a bricklayer, but the Smiths were greeted by Sreyna's older sister, Salim, and their friend, Nak, who had been living with them since her parents had passed away.

Bill Smith I kind of knew that it existed. I vaguely remember seeing a picture like that in National Geographic. But it doesn't really hit home until you're standing there.

-- Bill Smith

Eventually, the Smiths would meet Sreyna and Salim's mother and, through Kong's translation, they found out that all three children worked at the dump instead of attending school, each bringing in $10 a month. The Smiths made a deal with the mother, they would enroll the children in school as well as pay her the money that she would lose from them no longer working in the dump, but she had to promise that the kids would never work there again. They left Kong some money to care for the children and he agreed to occasionally visit the children to ensure that their pact was being held in place.

When they returned to the U.S., Bill showed the pictures he had taken at the dump to friends and relatives. Many of them were moved by what they saw and insisted on donating money to adopt a child as well. The word spread, and what started out as one child, then immediately grew to three, then up to 20 and counting. When the Smiths returned to Cambodia a few months later, they realized that even though what they were doing was progress, it still wasn't enough. The kids had no lights to do their school work at night, the conditions that they lived in were still terrible, and the Smiths knew that they had to raise more money so they could get them out of the slums and into an acceptable living situation.

By this time, Joe O'Neil, the Bulls' senior director of ticket operations, had adopted some children of his own and was helping Smith spearhead this initiative. The two of them brainstormed and ended up putting together a program called "From the Sports World to the Third World." They'd rent venues wherever they could get an audience, from country clubs to church groups, friends would invite friends and they began to show what they had witnessed at the Stung Mean Chey dump. Smith would start off by showing his pictures from sporting events and concerts at the United Center, then he'd go on to show the beauty of southeast Asia. Finally he'd show them the images of the children rummaging through the trash; by the time he'd finished with that, there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house.

Eventually, the donations came flooding in, and with some lucky breaks and articles in the Chicago Tribune, the yearly donations went from thousands of dollars, to more than a hundred thousand, with former Bears chairman Mike McCaskey and Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf among some of the larger contributors. Reinsdorf was so moved after seeing a documentary about the subject on Comcast SportsNet that he sent copies of the film to every Bulls season-ticket holder, encouraging them to donate what they could to the foundation. That's how what began as Bill and Lauren Smith opening their hearts to a few young girls ballooned into what is now "A New Day Cambodia."

Presently, "A New Day Cambodia" is a foundation comprised of two houses, a staff of 16 and 100 children who range from the ages of 7-22. The Smiths, O'Neil and countless others have been tireless in their efforts with this program. In essence, it has become a second full-time job for them. They are the ones who made all this possible, but at the heart of it all is Annette Jensen, who has been the director of the homes in Cambodia for more than three years and the person whom Bill Smith insists makes all of this work.

"Working with ANDC and the children was a job that fell into my lap," said Jensen, who according to Smith is vastly overqualified for the job and has turned down pay raises to ensure that more money will go toward benefiting the children. "I had no experience with children. My background is in translation and business. But once I met the 44 adorable children who had moved into the ANDC center a few months before I arrived in Phnom Penh, I was sold.

"The work is immensely rewarding. The children appreciate any little thing you do for them, and there is plenty of payment in the form of smiles, hugs and kisses every day."

Behind those smiles is an appreciation that transcends words.

"In the past, I was a scavenger on the dump and my family was so poor," said Chhon Sreynov, 15, a student in A New Day Cambodia. "After I live in the center, I feel I am a very lucky person that I can stay and study in the center. If I don't live here I don't know what my life will be."

O'Neil knows his work has impacted the lives of these children, but they've done the same to him and his family: "The most satisfaction I've had was bringing my family to Cambodia and having my children meet these children."

Children like Sot Ra, 15: "I am very lucky to live in the center. I live in the center by Mr. Bill and Mr. Joe. If I don't live in the center maybe I am a scavenger on the dump and I become a bad boy or become a playboy and steal somebody's money all the time. The center can make me have a good future in my life."

Jensen has been working with these children for more than three years, and over that time her duties have been ever evolving.

"At the beginning, the focus was on researching school options and trying to find doctors and dentists who actually knew what they were doing, treated the children with respect and were affordable," she said. "Then the focus became opening a second center and filling it with everything it needed, including new children for the project.

"Later, the focus moved to hiring teachers for our in-house English program that all the children attend six days a week for half a day, finding volunteers, meeting with visitors, dealing with staff, listening to children's questions, and dealing with the many issues that come up. Finally, the focus has turned to providing the children some of the fun that should come with being a child -- setting up dance programs, swim lessons, singing lessons, correspondence between children and sponsors, and the like."

[+] EnlargeBill Smith
Courtesy of Chicago BlackhawksBill Smith makes a living chronicling success in sports, but the achievement of a student from "A New Day Cambodia" brought him to tears.

Included in those fun activities are the sports the children like to play, the most popular of which is soccer. A few years ago some of the children were entered into a soccer league. "I'm pretty sure they lost every game," Smith said with a smirk. "Now they're one of the top teams."

While they are without access to the proper facilities to play the sport, many of the children also like basketball. In all likelihood they have yet to have the pleasure of witnessing Derrick Rose knife through the lane or watching Joakim Noah rebound and block shots. However, the children do wear the Bulls hats that "Mr. Bill" and "Mr. Joe" gave them, with pride.

"All the kids know that Chicago has been very good to them," said Jensen, "If they have a chance to go abroad, 99 percent of them would come to Chicago."

Certainly one of their first stops would be to the United Center.

This past June, the Smiths were lucky enough to witness the fruits of their generosity as Sreyna graduated from Zaman International School, which is designed for advanced students. The once sad-eyed girl turned out to be a truly gifted child. Despite not being formally educated until she was 9, she still finished high school at the age of 18.

"I couldn't look at the stage without crying, seeing her in her cap and gown, knowing where she came from," Smith beamed like a boastful father. "I was so proud."