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Former Hollywood Exec: Why I Gave Up My $1M Salary to Move to Cambodia

Sumner Redstone, Heather Graham, Scott Neeson
From left: Sumner Redstone, Heather Graham and Scott Neeson, photographed by Joe Pugliese on June 20 at Redstone's home in Beverly Hills

What Sony's Scott Neeson saw during a visit to a garbage dump outside Phnom Penh changed his life and inspired him to quit, move and launch the Cambodian Children's Fund; now benefactor Sumner Redstone reveals in THR's Philanthropy Issue that he is giving a new gift of $480,000.

Scott Neeson gave up his career as an executive at Fox (where he oversaw the international releases of such blockbusters as Titanic and Braveheart) then Sony after a life-changing experience in 2003. While on a trip to Cambodia, a friend told Neeson he had to visit the Stung Meanchey garbage dump outside Phnom Penh. What he found were crowds of desperate children searching for food in the refuse of a poor, war-ravaged nation.

After returning home, he decided to leave his $1 million-a-year job (including bonuses) at Sony Pictures Releasing International -- where he had been senior executive vp marketing -- sell all he had and move to Cambodia full-time. There, the single Neeson set up the Cambodian Children's Fund to feed, shelter and educate impoverished children. The fund now has supporters throughout the U.S., and its entertainment-industry base includes Viacom/CBS mogul Sumner Redstone -- whose nearly $4 million in donations have won him the cherished honorific "father" among young beneficiaries -- actress Heather Graham and director Roland Emmerich, who in June raised $1 million in one evening at his Hollywood Hills house.

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Recalling his early days in Cambodia, Neeson -- who took most of his cash with him to set up the CCF and whose annual salary is now $87,000 -- says: "If I could have walked away, I probably would have. But there was no one else." The group provides supplemental education to 1,500 students and has built a health clinic and community center.

Redstone tells THR exclusively that he is donating an additional $480,000 to establish a child-protection unit to assist abused children, many of whom are targets of sexual exploitation and forced labor. (He also last month gave $120,000 to RainCatcher, a non-profit dedicated to solving the global water crisis.) "We've built a rescue center, medical facilities and a bakery so they can eat," he says. "I've given them millions, and I want to give them more because they need it." Redstone's first gift helped the CCF divert kids from the dump to school. The ongoing donations, says Neeson, "mean that our promise of getting these young kids all the way through high school and into university has been sustained."

Says Graham, who joined the fund's board of directors after traveling to Cambodia to see Neeson's efforts firsthand in 2009, "There's other charities that I've given money to, but Scott's is the best because you feel involved in the children's lives."