Bill Smith, the much-decorated Blackhawks team photographer, has taken thousands of pictures that are worth the proverbial 1,000 words. But the latest snapshot in his collection is truly a keeper, and not simply because he is posing instead of producing. With Bill and wife Lauren are two close friends, Sreyna On and sister Salim, who are watching the Blackhawks perform at the United Center.
“It’s so fast, hockey,” marvels Sreyna, 19. “I had never even seen snow before I came to Chicago, except in the movie ‘Home Alone.’ Now to see what these players do on ice, it’s amazing.”
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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“I’m sure if I tried that, I would fall down,” concludes Salim, 21. “But it is something I would like to do. We have bought some clothes on this trip because it is cold, but not skates. There is nothing like this back home.”
Home for these two young, wide-eyed ladies is Cambodia, and they are on their first visit to the United States. Yet they refer to Bill and Lauren as “dad” and “mom” for good reason – that reason being the absolute and unfettered goodness of two Americans who could have appropriated their vacation for pampering, maybe on the beaches of Hawaii. Instead, during one of their numerous tours of Southeast Asia in 2002, the Smiths came upon a makeshift shack near a garbage dump, where they witnessed a young girl in a red hat foraging through the debris so as to collect a plastic bottle or a shred of metal that could be sold. In a good month that would bring $10 for the family to survive.
“Hopelessness,” recalls Lauren. “That’s what I saw in the eyes of that little girl in the red hat, who was Sreyna.”
The Smiths could have left abject poverty in their rear view mirror and returned to Chicago, where Bill has also been the man behind the camera for the Bulls and Bears over four decades and where Lauren is a fashion designer. But that could not be, not after the Smiths witnessed the grim sight and acrid smell of that workplace where Sreyna and Salim toiled when they should have been in class building toward a tomorrow. Alas, tomorrow is guaranteed to no one, least of all children who are so deprived that dreaming is not an option.
Bill and Lauren, however, pursued what seemed an impossible mission. They met Syrena and Salim’s divorced mother and offered to pay her whatever the girls might earn at the dump and send them to school instead. Trust had to be established, but in any language, the sincerity of the Smiths, complete strangers, was translatable.
“We were so fortunate,” says Salim. “The garbage dump, I could not work there for very long each day. It made me sick.”
What has ensued could pass as unbelievable, except that it is true. Bill, armed with graphic photographs of the blight, put together a presentation. He showed it to his many friends in sports, notably Joe O’Neil, senior director of ticket operations for the Bulls. Soon he was on board, as was Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Bulls and White Sox. Then the Bears. As a result, the Smith’s humanitarian gesture grew exponentially into a foundation, “A New Day for Cambodia.”
“I never thought that this could happen to us. What would it be, one in a million? If this did not happen to us, we would still be looking for plastic bottles in the garbage dump.” - Sreyna On
Now, 62 girls and 37 boys are educated, not far from that garbage dump, in two dormitory-style facilities there. Now, Syrena and Salim’s mother has a job, cooking for the students. Now, her two girls are in America, watching hockey games in their own jerseys, furnished by the Blackhawks.
“What do you call this, a miracle?” says Syrena, who graduated from high school last June. Why, she even beat the Blackhawks to the White House by a few days. Part of her itinerary on a six-month visa involved the “Women of the World” conference in New York, followed by a journey to Washington and a meeting with the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
“We have so much to talk about when we get back home,” says Salim. “And we have so many pictures to show. We did not know, when we first met Dad, that he was a famous photographer. Now we know.”
Syrena is working at a hotel back home, and Salim is a teacher’s assistant. While in Chicago they are enrolled part-time in an English class, although they are doing rather well in that department. Bill and Lauren have shown their guests a bit of everything, from museums to the Hard Rock Café, and when it’s time for a quiet evening at the Smith residence, the hosts and the visitors take turns preparing meals.
“I never thought that this could happen to us,” Syrena said. “What would it be, one in a million, the chances that we would be picked out of all the other children where we come from? I was able to study and learn. If this did not happen to us, we would still be looking for plastic bottles in the garbage dump.”
Bill Smith started making these excursions in 1992 at the urging of a friend, former Bears’ star Gary Fencik. Smith went to Vietnam, India, Cambodia, over and over again. Two days after the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup parade last June, he was on a plane. How he does it is remarkable but no less so than why he does it. It’s called caring beyond the call of duty. And just in case Syrena and Salim feel homesick, they have two nine-year-old brothers to hang out with here. Veasna and Samnang were six weeks old when the Smiths found them, abandoned in baskets, while touring Cambodia.
“They’re twins, and we adopted them,” says Bill. “When we asked around about who they were or where their parents were, nobody knew. They were infants, orphaned. Then we asked, well, how could they have names? We were bringing them to the United States without names? We were told that, over there, Veasna meant ‘destiny’ and Samnang meant ‘lucky.’ Their destiny was with us in America and they were lucky. But so are we.”