Inspiring Change

After years of pursuing his dream of becoming a journalist, one USF alumnus stepped away from the daily grind of negative news and turned his attention to the good that people are doing to help others. The resulting work he’s done since then is nothing less than inspiring.

Written by Jim Muyo
Inspiring Change

Toan Lam ’00 had had enough. After years as a television reporter covering more than his share of negative stories, “death and destruction,” he calls them, he knew he needed a change. He wasn’t sure where he was headed, he told a close friend, but the time had come for him to move on.

Just as he was preparing to quit his job as a reporter at KRON-TV in San Francisco in December 2008, he went to work one day only to be summoned to the accounting office. “So, I went up there and they laid me off, gave me a severance check,” Lam said with a smile. “The guy that cut the check, he says, ‘You’re the happiest person in the two decades that I’ve worked here that I laid off.’ I knew I was ready for a change.”

But a change to what? When? Where? While Lam didn’t know just what he’d do, he knew he needed time off to recharge batteries that had been depleted by TV news jobs in Wausau, Wis., Midland, Texas, Fresno, and at KRON. “I was burned out by work, stressed out,” Lam said.

“I had never really even taken it in and enjoyed everything that nature had to offer. I was running one day and I just stopped and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really amazing. The trees, branches were dancing.’ No, I wasn’t going crazy,” Lam laughs, “I was just joyful.”

“After I got laid off I said I’m going to spend the next year shopping less and eating out less and focus on using my power to give back and use my resources and talents connecting with people and telling their stories. That was really a defining moment in my life.”

That moment ultimately led Lam to create, a media platform that highlights videos that he produces of people who do extraordinary things to help others, often perfect strangers. Take Jorge Munoz of Queens in New York. After completing his shift driving a local school bus, he comes home, rests for about 10 minutes, and then starts cooking and distributing meals to about 140 New Yorkers every night in a rough neighborhood under elevated subway tracks.

There’s also the story of Phoebe Russell, a San Francisco kindergartner who became upset when she learned that there are homeless people who don’t have money to buy food. Phoebe started a can collection drive at her school in 2009 to raise money to help the hungry. The effort caught on, momentum grew, and ultimately Tyson Foods donated 10 tons of chicken. There’s also Herman Travis, himself unemployed, who volunteers to deliver weekly food baskets to approximately 60 families, mostly elderly and home bound. But it’s not just about feeding the hungry. Other videos feature Jordan Bower, a man making a pilgrimage in hopes of inspiring people to disconnect from technology and connect with one another. Bower’s journey is taking him from Canada to Mexico by foot to meet and share stories with people along the way. Other stories feature a group dedicated to building a school in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in January 2010, a family that sold one of its businesses and gave the $6.6 million in proceeds to their employees to thank them, and an East Bay teenager who traveled to Africa to lead the effort to build a community brick oven and a garden in Tanzania so that locals there can grow and cook their own food. Lam does most of the reporting and narrating of the videos, typically three to five minutes in length, in an easy long-story style with a soft but purposeful voice that allows viewers to get to know not just the subjects of the videos but their back stories and what motivates them to reach out to others.

“I really believe that we’re all born good people, and we really want to help others, but people just don’t know how. I think we all want to do our part to elevate humanity and do something to give back,” said Lam, 33, whose title at is “Chief Inspirator.” “The difference between us and a lot of other inspiring websites is that you feel a sense of powerlessness after looking at certain stories because a big corporation or a celebrity is behind an effort.” In addition to asking “What can you do?” Lam’s videos include a direct call to action through links to websites, phone numbers, email addresses, and additional information so that viewers, including those of modest means, can send a donation to specific organizations or use their resources or talents to help if they are so moved. Lam realizes that not everyone can go to the lengths of people like Jorge, Phoebe, or Herman. “We just show you that it’s possible. Phoebe wanted to raise a thousand dollars and we helped her multiply that. We helped her multiply that to 135,000-plus meals.”

Story Teller in Action: Toan Lam at a recent shoot for a new video for with assistant Samantha Yarock.

Far removed from the death and destruction stories he came to loath, Lam is using the story telling skills he developed at USF through his reporting classes and at his various television internships and reporting jobs to spread good news—quite an achievement for someone who confesses to having given up his own voice as a youngster.

For Lam, growing up was anything but easy. His family came to the United States from Vietnam when he was eight months old, leaving behind a successful cast iron nail and construction business in search of a better life. Lam's Chinese mother and father gathered their five children, one of Lam’s grandfathers, two grandmothers, and several aunts and cousins for the journey. They ended up in Sacramento, living in a trailer, and moving from “ghetto to ghetto” where crime, drive-by shootings (including the occasional bullet hole through their home), and the shooting of friends was not unusual.

As a youngster, Lam was a voracious reader, reading the backs of shampoo bottles because he couldn’t get enough material. His love of books and reading, though, ostracized him from his peers. They asked why he wanted to “be white,” and why was he selling out. “Who do you think you are?” they asked.

“So I remember giving away my voice, you know, literally,” Lam said. “I literally grew up very quiet and timid and shy because I essentially let these kids kind of take my power, and it wasn’t until USF that I reclaimed it.” That occurred after he hurriedly completed a short autobiography in an expository writing class. He vividly recalls receiving his paper back from his teacher, Carolyn Weber. “On the top right-hand corner, in red, in perfectly written penmanship, she put, ‘Toan, you are such a gifted and talented writer. I hope you do something with it one day.’ It still gives me chills, just talking about it.”

It was a revelation for Lam, who says his parents were loving but in stereotypical fashion, never lauded him for his communication skills or curious nature. “It was like, ‘You going to be a doctor? You going to be a lawyer? You going to be an engineer?’ in that order,” Lam said in an accent replicating that of his parents.

After finding his voice, Lam was determined to become a print journalist. But, a chance encounter with his Asian American Journalists Association mentor Matt Dunn during his freshman year at a USF career fair led him to apply for and accept an internship at a television show hosted by now- CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien. The show was a partnership between MSNBC and Ziff Davis Publishing. Soon, another internship followed at KPIX-TV in San Francisco. “So I went to KPIX and ended up working the weekend news assignment desk. I started following a couple of reporters around just to see if this would be something I enjoyed. I was fascinated by the way the reporters conducted interviews, the fast pace, you know, getting the news quickly and first, so that whet my appetite. I thought this would be something I’d want to do because I wouldn’t be sitting at a desk all day.

“I eventually interned with Robert Handa (of KTVU-TV) in San Jose two times a week. He took me under his wing, and he was very tough on me,” Lam said. Handa, a veteran reporter who has also worked at KPIX-TV, KQED-TV, and KNTV-TV in the Bay Area, remembers Lam quite well. In fact, the two have maintained a friendship since Lam’s days as an intern.

“I would have to say that the tougher you are on somebody generally means that that’s how much potential you think that person has,” Handa said. “You want to make sure that they understand because you don’t want them to waste that potential.

“When we would do stories, Toan was always very interested in not only what you need to do to cover the story but also trying to learn much more about the person and the situation beyond what you’d probably be able to use or need to put in the story. I think that his compassion for the human condition, the human spirit, that was sort of one of the personality traits that came out at me when I first met him. I used to take him on stories that maybe other interns I wouldn’t take on.”

Also instrumental to Lam’s development as a journalist and story teller was Associate Professor Michael Robertson, 34 a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, USF faculty member since 1991, and director of USF’s journalism minor. “Michael was very tough on me,” Lam said. “I had a lot of office hours with him where I was very unhappy with my grades.” Evidently, Robertson also saw something in Lam. He told him in one of those frequent office encounters that he believed that Lam would go on to be a journalist, despite the tough grades that Robertson was doling out.

“I believed in him because he was getting internships and he was thinking about it (journalism) in a way almost all of the other students were not,” Robertson said. “He was doing stories with Robert Handa and he was learning how to think like a reporter and I really wanted to push him to be good at it because I knew how unlikely it was that any young person who wants to do that is going to make a career of it. The odds are against it. The great thing about Toan was that if I pushed him he would do better. If I’d say, ‘No, no, more of this!’ He would do more of it.”

The impact of both Handa and Robertson on Lam is felt today beyond Lam’s videos. It’s trickling down to current students at both USF and the Academy of Art University where Lam teaches and writes curriculum. “The reason that I teach now is because of my mentors,” Lam said. “I said, ‘How can I pay you back?’ We all get somewhere because somebody helps us, right? And every one of them, including Robert, I remember, he said, ‘You know what you could do for me? Give it back. Give back what I’ve taught you.’”

But part-time teaching, while paying his bills for a simple lifestyle, doesn’t do much for the time, travel, and expense of producing's inspiring videos. So, Lam looks for private and corporate sponsors to pay the bills. He’s passed up several lucrative job offers with six-figure salaries from local television stations and a national network because they didn’t “feel right.”

When he started people would ask him for his business plan and his projected ROI (return on investment). Lam wasn’t focused at all on a return on investment, seeking instead to simply tell those inspiring stories. As for the costs associated with producing the videos, Lam has received some modest donations of airline miles for flights from friends. And, last year, achieved nonprofit status, so Lam has begun the process of fundraising through grants and donations to help grow the concept.

“Last year I was focusing on if the idea was working,” Lam said. “Can we create stories that move people and spark civic engagement? We can. So, this year I’m trying to build the business side of GIG. I’m focusing on building business, partnering, getting more viewers.”

Success is evident in the response to the videos. The Phoebe story garnered more than 50,000 web hits, while Jorge’s story received more than 140,000, including some from high profile opinion makers. A member of the Obama administration saw the Jorge video and in August President Barack Obama bestowed upon him the Presidential Civilian Medal, given solely at the president’s discretion. First Lady Michelle Obama sent a letter to Phoebe thanking her for her zest for activism.

What’s more, as the videos have stirred others to act, the media have picked up on the story. Lam’s work has been featured on Good Morning America. He was asked by Arianna Huffington to write a regular blog for The Huffington Post, and has blogged for Yahoo’s “Inspiring Acts,” and Deepak Chopra’s

For Lam, though, it’s not about recognition. It’s about doing something to help others. “This is what I love doing,” Lam said. “And, I love the fact that I’m able to be a voice for the voiceless because that was me. I’m not rich and I’m not famous. But I care. I feel like I’ve finally discovered my power, my voice, and I’m using it. I’m practicing what I’m preaching.

“I’ve had several lucrative job offers of over six figures. I make way less than that, but it’s so funny because I’m so happy.” So happy, that for now, Lam is content to focus on, use his voice to tell those inspirational stories, and try to make a difference in the lives of so many people. ■

To see videos of Jorge Munoz, Phoebe Russell, and others, visit

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