Some Americans find solace in leaving the country, whether for business or pleasure, but artistic passion motivated Chicago Bulls photographer Bill Smith to visit Southeast Asia in 1991. During his travels to the region, he developed a fervor for something beyond photography: philanthropy.
With the help of Bulls Ticket Manager Joe O’Neil, two staff members of the Chicago Tribune and dozens of generous Amer- icans, Smith has helped almost 100 impoverished children get clean clothes and food since his initial trip
“As a photographer, when I go on vacation, I bring quite a bit of equipment,” Smith said. “I don’t enjoy myself by lying on a beach or at a resort. I like taking travel photos.”
Smith has been traveling the world since the 1970s, when he began his career with the Bulls. Sports photography was his job, but he also enjoyed photographing the exotic locations he visited during his travels. He said he chose to visit countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia because they felt more authentic than typical overseas destinations, which often have more tourists than locals.
The vastness of Southeast Asia left his hunger for photography unsatisfied, and he returned to the region multiple times. His wife, Lauren, soon began to accompany him on his excursions.
During his trips to Cambodia, which he has visited more than 40 times, Smith built a relationship with some locals in the areas he frequented. One such acquaintance was a driver familiar with Smith’s work who suggested he photo- graph a slum. Smith took the sug- gestion and discovered an area he described as 20 football fields long and filled with garbage. Half-naked children picked through trash to find food. He said he decided in that moment that something needed to be done.
“My wife and I decided we’re just tourists, so there’s not a lot we can do,” Smith said. “We figured we could give a little money to one child to put them out of their misery. We decided to support one girl and her sister. I felt like I was playing God.”
Smith said the couple’s donations provided food, water and clean clothing for the girls and spending money for their mother. When the Smiths came back to Chicago, they showed photos of the girls to friends and family and shared their story. Soon, others decided to donate money to the cause.
The number of children the Smiths helped soon grew from two to about 22. One of their biggest supporters was O’Neil. He helped with fundraising and invited potential sponsors, including formerTribune Sports Editor Dan McGrath. McGrath assigned K.C. Johnson, a sports reporter at the Tribune, to write an article about their efforts. O’Neil said that after the story ran on Dec. 24, 2006, approximately $100,000 in donations poured in from across the country. The nonprofit A New Day Cambodia was born.
“If I couldn’t write a good story on such a rich idea, it’s time to turn in my journalism card,” Johnson said. “Bill and Joe deserve all the credit. Whatever little part the Tribune played in giving more expo- sure to such a good cause is all in a
Smith said O’Neil became his partner and they hired a lawyer to file the paperwork and tax forms necessary for ANDC to become a legal charity. But O’Neil, who had never been to Southeast Asia, had to physically and mentally prepare for the journey.
“It was a 24-hour trip and was taxing on the mind and body,” O’Neil said. “[Once I arrived], it was like leaving the planet, just a totally different type of existence. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Once the initial shock wore off, the two got to work. They looked for stable housing for the children, and Smith and O’Neil set about building makeshift shacks.
Today, ANDC has a staff of 20 and supports almost 100 children of all ages, according to Smith.
“Children are children,” O’Neil said. “Whether they grow up in Chicago or a garbage dump in Cambodia, they all have hopes, they all have dreams.”
Their efforts were acknowledged in a two-part documentary titled “From the Sports World to the Third World: A Journey to Cambodia,” which aired Nov. 13 and 14 on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
“There was a desire to take the next step and travel to over 8,000 miles to Phnom Penh to see firsthand Bill and Joe’s accomplishments, as well as follow them as they found new children to bring to the center,” said Matthew Zickus, a multimedia producer with CSN.
Smith said founding and running the charity was hard work that couldn’t have been done without help from others.
“You would have done it too,” he said. “We were just in tears. The real success is that hundreds and hundreds of kind Americans trusted me enough to send me money. People in this country have a good heart.”