• Live Inspired

    The Story of Lâm Toàn.

    Founder of GoInspireGo.com

    to watch the NBC KNTV's Bay-Area-Proud segment about
    Toàn Lâm's work aired on November 1, 2012

    Born in the Fog of War

    Toàn Lâm was born in 1974 in Saigon Vietnam, while his country was in an infernal of war. Despite the widespread chaos, he started out with a pampered life as one of five children in a family that made their living from a small business. If he remembered any good time, that memory would be short-lived. At eight months of age before he could speak his first word, Saigon fell to the communist forces and pushed his parents to get their extended family out of the country.

    Although losing all of their life's work and possession, Toan's family got a really luck to be able to leave Vietnam when they did. Behind the Iron Curtain, the new communist government was declaring war against the "capitalists" and ethnic Chinese. Both of Toan's parents are Chinese. Tens of thousands of families like his fell victims to the đánh tư sản (war against capitalists) campaign, in which well-to-do people were stripped of properties and be forced to relocate in undeveloped Kinh Tế Mới (New Economic Zone), unless they were able to cough up enough gold for a boat trip out of the country.

    Chaotic scene of evacuees on US embassy's rooftop in April 1975, when Toàn's family fled from Vietnam

    Rough Life in America

    If life in the U.S. were supposed to be good, Toàn didn't entirely feel it. Not being able to bring any wealth out of Vietnam, the Lâm family settled in Sacramento and could only afford to live in poor and gang-infested neighborhoods that hearkened to the time of war.

    Toàn grew up in an unpredictable environment where friends and foes were difficult to tell apart. He sought safety in his own shyness and stayed away from potential fun as well as troubles. Although behaving like a perfect child, Toàn didn't exactly get the adoration of his parents. Without wealth and social status to pass on to their children, his parents had hope for their children to achieve respect and security in professional fields such as medicine or engineering. Toàn, on the other hand, was not attracted to glory of the hard sciences. He loved to read and write and enthused by colorful ideas, rich contexts and imagination of the liberal arts.

    Something else separated Toàn from his elders as well. He is an optimist and believes in the sunny side of human nature. By comparison, the older Vietnamese generation tends to be jaded by cynicism born out of unrecoverable losses of war.

    Looking for true joy

    After graduating from high school, Toàn broke rank with the Asian-American stereotype of a nerdy technical student to pursue a degree in journalism. At the University of San Francisco, the intellectually rich and socially safe environment encouraged Toàn to develop his potential. Recognized by his professors for his excellent writing skills, Toàn saw a bright future in print journalism.

    But in a summer internship at the local TV station KTVU Channel 2 in San Francisco, he met Robert Handa, a veteran reporter, who excited Toàn about television reporting. As Toàn learned the art of writing for TV news, he took a further step to stand in front of the camera to deliver stories.

    After graduating in 2000, he joined the exclusive rank of Asian Americans who made a career delivering news on TV. He thought that being a news reporter/producer for TV stations and Public Television would be satisfying, but the reality betrayed his expectation. After taking jobs in Wisconsin, Texas, Fresno, and finally in his home market in San Francisco, Toàn felt dissatisfied with the consumer's fascination with violence, chaos and tragedies. Bad news sells, but it also has a corrosive effect on the spirit of the young journalist. Yet Toàn couldn't free himself from the path of his own making and find true joy in his career.

    Robert Handa, an influential mentor

    A Blessing in Disguise

    In 2008, the Great Recession hit America. As the U.S. economy went into a tailspin, revenues in the media market dried up. In December of that year, Toàn was given his lay-off notice. But the accountant who handed Toàn his severance paycheck saw not a despair young man but a seemingly elated Toàn happy to leave his job behind. Still a single man, Toàn could get by with a lot less money, but he found his new mental freedom to be priceless.

    The collapse of the economy caused unimaginable angst in America, but for Toàn, he found a treasure of riches. Everywhere he looked, he saw people doing wonderful things to make life better others. It was time for him to use his skills to share with others what he saw rather than what TV viewers wanted to see. Toàn began to make short videos about a few people who had hearts of gold. He then posted his videos onto YouTube in order to call more support for these small but amazing efforts.

    Toàn as a news reporter for KRON-TV

    Life is a GIG

    One of his first videos was about Jorge Munoz of Queens in New York, who drove school bus in the day time and at night cooked and distributed meals to people living under subway tracks. Another video was about the six-year old Phoebe Russell, a San Francisco kindergartner, who started a can collection drive at her school to raise money to help the hungry. Another of Toàn's subject was an unemployed man, Herman Travis, who made free-delivering of food to home-bound people his new job. Then, there was a story about Lily Gordon, an East Bay teenager who traveled to Tanzania to build a community brick oven and a garden so locals there could grow and cook their own food.

    Viewership of Toàn's Youtube videos grew and grew. People began to respond to Toàn's call for help and donations poured in to help these angels' efforts. As some of his videos' viewership climbed over 100,000 mark, Toàn began to attract attention of high-profile people. His Youtube video helped Jorge Munoz to land the Presidential Civilian Medal by President Barack Obama. Phoebe Russell, the kindergartener, received a commendation from First Lady Michelle Obama and a donation of 10 tons of chicken from Tyson Foods for her effort to feed the hungry.

    Toan taking in a new view of San Francisco with a smaller camera and a bigger perspective on life.
    Photo: Vasna Wilson

    The Inspirator in Chief

    What started out as a personal labor of love turned out to have a major social impact. Toàn decided to turn his feel-good project into a non-profit organization called GoInspireGo (GIG). From one man, GIG now has over 30 dedicated volunteers who donate their skills to spot light every-day heroes in communities throughout the country. His business model was simple: true life heroism + leveraging social media = positive social change.

    At GIG, Toàn is known to be the Inspirator-in-Chief. GIG's work has been widely recognized and Toàn was featured on Good Morning America show. Toàn was asked by Arianna Huffington to write a regular blog for The Huffington Post. He has blogged for Yahoo’s “Inspiring Acts,” and Deepak Chopra’s Intent.com.

    Despite GIG's successes, Toàn is still trying to figure out how to propel his business model into the consumer market economy to create more impact. That has been fraught with difficulties. When he tried to raise funds from companies, he was asked to show ROI (Return on Investment). Toàn was stumped, because in his business model, he used a different measurement of success, one that could be called "MEG" (the Multiplier Effect of Giving). The incompatibility of visions made him do irrational things such as refusing six-figure job offers and declining proposals for TV shows that others would only dream to have.

    Watch Toan's video about the 6-year-old Phoebe Russell who with his help eventually collected donation for over 150,000 meals for the homeless.

    On Giving Back and Being Authentic

    To support his modest lifestyle, Toàn works as an adjunct professor for his Alma Mater, the University of San Francisco, and a curriculum developer for the Academy of Art University. For Toàn, being a teacher is filled with the joy of giving back. The Vietnamese have a saying, "Không thầy đố mày làm nên," (without a teacher, one can't achieve very much). Toàn echoed a similar idea when he said, "We all get here from somebody." He credits his mentors and professors for helping him discover his calling and continues to build on his relationships with former mentors like Robert Handa.

    Today, Toàn is surrounded by a team a young, energetic and talented group of volunteers who share the same passion as his. He still looks up to national figures such as Steve Hartman, who to him is a premier story-teller and the almighty Oprah Winfrey, the Goddess of TV journalism. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that Toàn wants to follow their paths. He believes that everyone must chart their own path and not necessarily emulate anybody. His advice is that: "Don't emulate anyone, because only you can be the best in what you can be. If you're not authentic, it doesn't translate well on TV or any other medium."

    Toàn Lâm at a recent shoot for a new video for GoInspireGo.com with assistant Samantha Yarock.

    A Forest of Perfection

    Growing up in the U.S., Toan did not have the benefit of knowing deeply the Vietnamese culture of his birth place or the Chinese culture of his parents. But he feels a deep connection with his birth culture. He speaks good conversational Vietnamese and has a good knowledge of the culture.

    In his very public profession, Toàn resisted an undertow of pressure to Anglicize his name. His favorite foods are the Vietnamese classics such as Phở, Bún Ḅ Huế, Bún Thịt Nướng, etc.... Some Asians would argue that his bend on living life with optimism and gratitude is simply the finest of Asian values.

    His name Lâm Toàn literally means a Forest of Perfection. Yet, Toàn said that he has made plenty of mistakes in his life. If there were one quality about him that could be called perfection, it would be his insistence on picking himself up after a failure.

    For Toàn, cultural pride is rooted not so much in the idea of a special identity but in the realization that "We are all connected by the human experience and that we are all more similar than different." Furthermore, he saw that as humans, "We fundamentally are good people that want to help others." So the essence of cultural pride is a journey of reaching back into one's past to find a vision for the common future.

    "I am Powerful because I Care!"

    We asked Toàn what he hopes to leave behind as his legacy. He replied "To create presence in people, a shift in humanity and to inspire all the viewers to think within about how they can use their God-given talents and power to give back."

    Through Toàn's work, we see a new kind of journalism, one in which the goal of the stories and the story-teller are one of the same. With GIG, there is a new religion in town, where the generous deeds of ordinary people are the gospel and the videographers are the evangelists. For a society too depressed in self-absorption, too anxious in competition and too psychotic in violence, GIG offers, not just new content on the social media scene, but a new type of social therapy to help individuals explore their power to make profound changes in their lives and their communities.

    Through his work, Toàn has discovered his power as an enlightened citizen, which is much greater than that of an ordinary TV reporter. And he shares this wisdom: "I am not powerful because I am rich or famous. I am powerful because I care!"

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