SHE’S lived a life of remarkable compassion and devastating heartbreak, so it’s no wonder former Canberra public servant Geraldine Cox had Danny Glover and Matt Damon fighting for the rights to her autobiography.
The actors were so enthralled with the 68-year-old’s tale of going from having “$80 in a bra” to founding three orphanages in Cambodia, as told in her 2000 novel “Home is Where the Heart Is”, Glover bought the book’s rights with the view it would eventually be made into a feature film starring himself and Damon.
But Cox isn’t a woman easily swayed by celebrities, however rich or famous.
“I’m a big woman, and they wanted me to be played by some gorgeous, thin young thing like Julia Roberts. I said ‘no, if we do this, we have to tell the story right’,” Cox told “CityNews” during a visit last week to Canberra.
When Glover’s rights to the autobiography lapsed, Cox decided not to renew them and she is now writing her own film script, starting with her small beginnings in Adelaide and later, as a public servant for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.
Cox says when she moved to Canberra at 25 in 1970, it was a “bleak” period in her life.
“I had been told I had blocked fallopian tubes and could never have children, which meant that in future relationships I had with men, each relationship that was serious broke down because of it,” she says.
“I thought a job with plenty of travel would fill that void.”
During her first posting to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Cox’s life changed.
“This was a time when the Vietnam War was in full swing and I saw many things that I couldn’t believe… the famine, the poverty,” she says.
“Thousands of Cambodians were suffering in unbelievably deprived living conditions as they fled the countryside to the city, to escape the provincial bombing by the Americans.”
Cox’s experiences in Cambodia never left her and on a return visit in 1993, she became involved in helping an orphaned Cambodian child.
Later, while working as an executive assistant for the Cabinet of the then first Prime Minister of Cambodia, she co-founded The Australia Cambodia Foundation and eventually raised $13,000 to open her first orphanage in 1994, now named The Sunrise Children’s Village, providing children with quality health care, education and a loving home.
“The helplessness and tragedy of these lost children was so moving, that it was impossible not to be motivated to do it,” says Cox.
But after a military coup in 1997, the future of the orphanage looked bleak.
“The staff there fled, and I was left on my own with nothing to feed the children except for $80 in my bra and half a tank of fuel,” she says.
Defeated and heartbroken, Cox was about to pack up and head home when she received an anonymous cheque for $10,000 – enough to keep the orphanage going for another year at least.
“To this day I still don’t know who it was who sent that cheque, but it saved everything,” she says.
Over the years Cox slowly rebuilt, raising money as president of The Sunrise Children’s Village, and in 1998 was granted Cambodian citizenship by a royal decree.
The orphanage grew from holding 20 children to 400, and now has three locations around Cambodia.
Cox says most of the orphans have been affected by HIV or were abandoned at hospital by parents who couldn’t afford medical bills.
“When they first walk through the Sunrise gates they are suspicious and afraid with no power over their lives,” she says.
“To watch that fear and trepidation dissolve through the love and attention of our staff and the other children is a reward that cannot be expressed.”
The children range from “babes in arms” to 18 years old, and if they haven’t passed year 12 by age 18, they are sent to an outreach house or given vocational training to help them find employment.
Cox says many of her charges now have good jobs and some have won tertiary scholarships in Australia.
“I’ve had hundreds of orphans who come back all grown up and see me to visit… they’ve got wives and jobs and they’re middle-class citizens. It’s amazing to see,” she says.
Cox currently lives in one of the orphanages near Phnom Penh, spending three months a year travelling the world to raise the $1m needed to keep the orphanages running.
In 2000, she was awarded an Order of Australia for her tireless efforts.
“These kids are my life – I found my purpose was to care for them,” she says.
“As a woman who could never have my own children, to experience the unconditional love of these vulnerable children brings me the joy and contentment in my life that nothing before could satisfy.”
More information or make a donation at scv.org.au. Donations are tax deductible.