August 13, 2014

Robin Williams: A Legacy of Laughter and Lament

By Toan Lam

I was leaving my CrossFit Box after a harder-than-normal workout and checked my cell phone to see a news alert that Robin Williams passed away. My heart sank in disbelief and I was overcome with sadness. I viscerally felt a shock, the jolt of a familiar friend who was now gone. I thought, “Say it ain’t so.”

Truth is, I never met Robin Williams. The only encounter I had was seeing him at a sushi bar in the Richmond District of San Francisco. I vividly remember people around him laughing out loud and enjoying themselves. Maybe through his humor, through “Mork & Mindy,” “Mrs. Doubtfire, “Birdcage” and other movies and interviews, I felt a deeper connection to him. It seems everyone I have spoken to since his passing had a story of when the comic genius brought light into their lives. I may not have known him personally, but I will always remember how he made me feel.

A quote by the late author and poet Maya Angelou comes to mind. “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve been obsessed with the reports that ensued. Comments flooded my social media accounts. People recounted their memories with him. Pictures, short stories and links to articles of depression filter in. I try to think of something positive -- perhaps this is opening up a dialogue about mental illness and depression. But my heart remains heavy.

It seemed that he was not only a funny man in public, he lived this out in his interactions with others. My friend Michelle Kennedy wrote about her encounter with him on her Facebook feed:

"Is it weird if I ask you to take a picture with us?" she asked.

"Only if you don’t have a camera," he said. Robin Williams R.I.P.

Robin Williams shares a moment with Julia Stuart, left, and
Michelle Kennedy. Photo courtesy of Michelle Kennedy.

Jim Norton wrote this poignant article about his encounter with Williams — how he made him feel in the crazy competitive world of comedy.

It seems like there are more questions than answers. Maybe the answers won’t all be answered.

It seems that Robin Williams has publicly talked about his addiction to drugs and alcohol, but didn’t talk much about his depression.

I immediately thought, “How does such a happy-go-lucky person so beloved and adored by fans do the unfathomable and end his own life?”

It seemed he didn’t know how much people loved him. Perhaps he didn’t know how much joy he brought to people’s lives. Perhaps that wasn’t enough.

It’s been a difficult month for me. My close family friend’s mother passed away from cancer, other friends of friends lost loved ones from suicide, sudden death during sleep and other accidents. Having lost four family members in about a year’s time, I know that unfortunately (and fortunately) death brings people together.

It’s inspiring to have witnessed people mobilize in person and online to make donations, help family and friends cope, and set up funds for surviving children. Likewise, it's moving to see the outpouring of support, people sharing stories about Williams' warmth, charm and pizzaz. While we don’t know what happens when our spirit leaves our bodies, I know that what connects us all are the stories that people keep in their hearts. This is their legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?

I invite you to share how you're healing and how you're honoring his life.

This made me think — life is too short and I too, need to make a concerted effort with the following:

1. I wonder if Robin Williams ever knew the magnitude of the impact he had on others. Did he know and FEEL the love that loved ones, colleagues and strangers had for him? I realize I need to tell more people I love that I love them and better yet, share stories with people about how they make me feel. (Why wait till someone is gone to share?) We'd love to hear, just #GoInspireGo so we can share.

2. We as humans need to do a better job at understanding and helping those with mental illnesses. Write a check, donate your time and talents and/or share information about mental illness and depression. To start, here’s an interesting article from Time.

3. We should laugh more. Tell a joke, rent a funny movie, don’t take life too seriously. Life is too short!

* Please share this blog and tag a friend, telling them a quick story about how and why they make you feel good/happy/joyful.

To Robin Williams, rest in peace amongst the stars. You were a star, a spark and class act. #oneofakind #depression #suicide #mentalillness

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July 16, 2014

Shedding My Baggage -- One Pain, One Pound at a Time

By Toan Lam

For more than 30 years, I was ashamed of my body. Walking past windows, I would catch a glimpse of my reflection. I saw an awkward, chubby boy with bad posture. I was the kid who would always keep his shirt on at the beach and wear oversized T-shirts to disguise my belly fat.

Two family members told me early on that I was "ugly" and "fat." "Your face is flat." "Look at your big belly, it's gross." They even made up a song pointing out why they thought I was ugly. I pretended to ignore it and acted like it didn't bother me. It hurt deep inside.

The truth is, looking back at old pictures, I was never overweight or ugly. But I felt like it.

I think all of us have a little boy or girl inside us who comes into our consciousness as adults. That child visits us and is the bridge to our childhood insecurities. The "little boy" inside me is about 10 years old… that awkward age just before puberty. This boy was told that he was fat and ugly by certain key people in his family -- and he believed the lies.

I finally made peace with that vulnerable 10-year-old. He made peace with the man he has become.

Fortunately, the lies and low self-esteem never manifested into deadly disorders such as bulimia or anorexia.

There were a few key factors to working past this part of my life:

1. Surrounding myself with people who aren’t toxic -- people who lift me, inspire me and love me. People like Lynn Billett, my sister who inspired me to love myself from the inside out. She was a shining example of getting fit the right way and incorporating healthy eating and exercise as a kid, so it’s habitual when you’re an adult. All you adults know that after 30, your metabolism and energy aren’t as rockstar-ish as your 20s. She now inspires others through her words and stories at her website,

2. I didn't go to a psychologist to help me get through this mental torture. Instead, I talked to many trusted people in my life. I realized what those family members said wasn't about me. It was about them and their own insecurities.

3. CrossFit. This week marks the end of Year 1 of this lifestyle change. I started with the basics, training with coach John Post at the San Francisco CrossFit. I know some of you may think it’s a #cult. These other words and hashtags also come to mind:


Sure, it’s good to see a physician and read up on the possible dangers of a workout routine. But it’s also important to find something that works for you.

Visiting CrossFit 5th Ave., New York City

In the past year, I’ve seen social media posts that would scare even the strongest of Olympic athletes.

One article that went viral was about a CrossFit clown, a.k.a. "Uncle Rhabdo," an unofficial mascot who is commonly referred to within the CrossFit community. Rhabdo sounds like a cool new dance trend right? According to WebMD, Rhabdo (or Rhabdomyolysis) is defined as "a serious syndrome due to a direct or indirect muscle injury. It results from a breakdown of muscle fibers and release of their contents into the bloodstream. This can lead to complications such as kidney failure and in rare cases, even death." One of my most physically fit friends shared this message on Facebook after reading the article: "This is why I will never do CrossFit." I had a visceral reaction to this post -- which is huge -- because I don't generally let things alter my mood that quickly. #namaste.”

Then I received an email from a friend who attached that article and wrote, "Hey hon, I saw this and read it and made me a little concerned, so sending it your way." This prompted me to share my story about CrossFit and address these concerns.

Dat, John & Me

I was inspired to try CrossFit because my brother Dat is a CrossFit athlete. Likewise, my friends Doreen Hess and Rob Mayeda's Facebook status updates and photos on social media amplified my interest. But I was still SCARED! I Googled local boxes (that's CrossFit lingo for gyms) and watched many videos and got even more scared. I passed by the San Francisco CrossFit box and heard weights slamming, people grunting and athletes climbing rope. The scene was out of a Hunger Games trailer. The little boy visited my thoughts and I became embarrassed of my belly.

After a lot of thought, conversations and sweaty palms, I thought, maybe I could face my CrossFit fears and at least give it a try. My eagerness to face my fears and challenge myself mentally and physically overpowered that little voice.

Before signing up for regular Level 1 classes, S.F. CrossFit requires that you enroll in Basics -- a two-week introductory course to train aspiring athletes correct form, safety and how the movements apply to your life (such as minding your posture while driving and sitting at your desk and how to lift things in awkward positions).

After the first class, I started getting addicted in a good way. Finally, I felt like I was learning how to exercise efficiently and properly. This whole time, I’ve been doing pull-ups, push-ups and squats all incorrectly.

I was sore for two straight months, but it was a good kind of sore.

Within two weeks, I noticed a huge difference physically, mentally and spiritually.

Just a few months later, I could confidently climb rope, do a handstand, pull-up, snatch, clean, jerk, etc. I surprised myself because one class I was doing assisted pull-ups with a band and the next, I was doing three kipping pull-ups. Woot! Little milestones like this keep me inspired to come back. There is also a sense of community that comes along with being a CrossFitter. Each class at my box starts with handshakes, greetings and meeting new people. Then the coach goes over the Workout of the Day (WOD). Many times you're paired with a partner to keep you motivated. During the workout, the coach walks around correcting form and teaching proper technique.

I can go on forever about how exercise has physically challenged and changed me. But above all, spiritually, this has been a lesson of evolving, facing my fears and feeling deserving to (as my sister says) be proud of and own the body that houses my soul, that takes you to the next day, the next dimension. My brother explained it best: “CrossFit is like the software for your body, which is the computer.” Gotta love computer programmers.

Kelly Starrett, founder MobilityWOD/Crossfit S.F.

I noticed that a year later, I’m still ever more present and aware of my form and posture. I eat better and more regularly. I felt my body composition change. My body is more toned, tummy is trimmer and of course, one of the best outcomes (aside from being healthy) is a new wardrobe. All my clothes that were tight are now so loose!

It took many years for me to work past the mental struggle of being teased and taunted from those two family members. I think somehow CrossFit was the final leg of the journey to a new me. The "I love me inside and out" person that I have grown to love.

This is the first summer that I’m OK with ditching the shirt (on the beach) and saying goodbye to the little boy who once believed the lies.

Take Action:

1. Be careful with your words. They can be used for good or evil. They have impact on you and those you touch.

2. #CrossFit is the lifestyle that works for me, it involves community, is sustainable because everyday is different and it challenges my physical and mental self. If you're interested, check out a box near you and if it isn't for you, find something that will help you move your body efficiently and have FUN!

3. Try not to react when you face negative teachers in life. Usually it's about them -- their insecurities -- not you. Identify them, learn not to be like them. You know you're awesome!

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June 14, 2014

Happy Father's Day: Rest in Peace Dad, I'm Now at Peace

By Toan Lam

Toan, age 5, in #12 shirt with family
If you've ever lost a parent, you probably dread Mother's Day and Father's Day and any other holiday that reminds you of your loved ones.

I lost my Dad to stomach cancer in 2001. That year was a blur to me as I lost Dad, Auntie and both grandmothers all in about a year's time. I'm surprised I survived that experience. I hardly remember anything from that time. I can only recollect moving to L.A. to live on a friend's couch and losing my voice for two months (that's a big deal, if you know me, I LOVE to talk).

I can't believe it's been 13 years since the sadness and sorrow. The only thing worse is the burden of unfinished business with Dad that I too will have to take to my grave one day.

But this Father's Day, I can finally say that I am at peace with Dad. Thanks to two friends -- angels on Earth really -- one of whom was a complete stranger who helped me let go of the unsettled business I had with pops.

I met Fiona "Love" Pattison at a castle during my friends Cathy Hue and Julian Shah-Tayler's wedding in Durham, England. Yes, a real castle - what a fantastic backdrop for our friendship to develop. Our connection was even more magical. I knew she was an evolved soul. I felt like we've known each other since we were kids. We connected over storytelling, good deeds and our genuine love of all things artsy fartsy.

She said, "The world needs this now, more than ever. There is a shift happening. What you're doing with storytelling and social media is really special." Immediately, she vowed to help with public relations and spread the news of Go Inspire Go in the U.K. She pitched a story, connected me to the talented filmmaker Oli Cohen, and the rest was history. Here's the story we produced about a fabulous couple who created a Compassionate Tea Movement:

That experience was extra special because so many lovely happenings manifested from our meeting. For the first time, I didn't carry a camera with me during my travels. I wanted to produce a story about all the compassion that came out of the 2011 London riots before meeting Fiona, but, ironically, I had an accident where hot tea spilled and burned off the first layer of skin on my foot. There was no way I could carry gear and navigate the Tube. It was pure kismet that she pitched the same story and connected me to the interviewees and Oli!

Since this experience, we've been spirit siblings. No doubt about it. Connected at a higher vibration and level. Fast forward two years… I had a Go Inspire Go social media photo walk to meet some of our biggest supporters in the San Francisco community.

One viewer and fan, Michael Fullam, asked, "Wow, what do your parents think of your success?" I told him, although I created a global multimedia platform to highlight everyday humanitarians and leverage social media to inspire social change and action, teach multimedia and storytelling at two universities, and share my blogs on the Huffington Post and, my mom didn't really fully comprehend what I do. I replied, "I tell my mom I do stories about people helping people." She still asks, in her adorable Chinese accent, "Oh, good. You make money yet?"

Michael asked me about my Dad and what he thought about this. I told him my father passed and doesn't know about what I'm doing. "I'm sure he's proud of you," Michael assured me. This made me sad -- yet another reminder of one of the last conversations I had with Dad replayed like a bad sitcom rerun in my head.

I told Michael that I quit my first TV reporting job to take care of Dad when I found out he had six months to live. I remember seeing him for the first time after moving back home. He was in the hospital bed. "Hi Dad, how are you?" I asked cautiously. A noisy clock's second hand was ticking in slow motion. I expected him to embrace me, hug me, tell me he loved me and say he was proud of my accomplishments as a TV reporter. It felt like a smack in the face when he said, "When are you going to be a doctor?" Really? That is the first thing he was going to say to me? UGH! I realized nothing had changed.

The day after Michael asked me about my Dad, Fiona called. We hadn't talked for about six months. She pinged me on Facebook and said she wanted to tell me something. We jumped on Skype. She told me, "I was putting the kettle on and got a hit. Your Dad wanted me to tell you that he was proud of you." What the? How could this be a coincidence? #Chills

The second person who helped me process my father's death was a complete stranger at the time. I met Gina Pell through my good friend and Community Heroes co-founder, Kala Shah. We met at a cafe/bakery in Ross, Calif. Gina offered to coach me about branding and business development.

She too asked me if my parents were impressed by the work I've been doing. I told her the same story I told Michael. She interrupted me and said, "Wait, did you ever think that your Dad was being sarcastic? I know that he was very proud of you. And he knows that you are a doctor now." I was perplexed. "A Doctor of the Spirit. You have helped so many people reconnect to their spirit and see their power and help people," she continued.

Tears ran down my eyes. We hugged. Instantly, more than three decades of the need to please my Dad and not feeling like I was good enough were lifted from me. I felt light. The tears washed away my sadness. Alas, I finally felt at peace with Dad.

Toan's Dad and family (Toan was only a twinkle in his parents' eyes)

Memories of conversations with the hospice nurse and priest my father befriended resurfaced. When I met them, they instantly knew who I was. They knew that I was a successful TV reporter, the youngest son, the kid whom he loved with every fiber of his being.

Before Dad took his last breath, he gave one last piece of advice: "We were all born with music in our hearts. It's our responsibility to share it with the world before we die."

I discovered that my melody lies in the heart of human communication. What brings me joy is connecting with people through reading, writing and talking. I share it with the world through Go Inspire Go. What music is in your heart and how are you sharing it?

This is one of the biggest spiritual lessons I've learned.

Here are five takeaways:

-I learned to forgive.

-I learned to make time for loved ones (even if you have to schedule them in) because life is fleeting.

-I learned that despite the cultural and generational barriers that got in the way of fully understanding our quirks, we did the best that we could.

-I learned that my father and auntie and both grandmothers will always be with me. Albeit not in the physical form, their values, spirit and goodness will live through me and my actions.

-I learned that I am their legacy... and my legacy will always be passed on through everybody who has been touched by my words, my voice and my story.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I know you're up there, glowing with pride, smiling at me.


Your son,
Toan, "The Soul Doctor"

P.S. Thank you to all my friends, you truly are angels -- the light in my dark times.

Please share your thoughts and memories about "Dad" in the comments section or via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

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May 6, 2014

Happy National Teacher Day: 3 Teachers Who Changed My Life

By Toan Lam

I think every day should be World Teacher Day. But today, I'll take this moment to honor all of the teachers on this National Teacher Day. As a university instructor, I know that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. They too, are my teachers. We'd love to hear stories of how a teacher has impacted your life. But first, here are three teachers who have changed the trajectory of my life. I hope by sharing their stories, you too, will learn a lesson or two from them.

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” —Dr. Maya Angelou

Eloquent, simple, deep. This quote defines the foundation in which I live, both in my personal and professional life. I’ve had a lot of job titles in the past. My first job was selling rattan baskets at a flea market with my uncle. Then there was the movie theater, financial aid officer in college, waiter, retail cashier, instructor at the Academy of Art University and University of San Francisco, host/reporter of a PBS show, TV reporter and currently, "Chief Inspirator" of Go Inspire Go. The list goes on, but there’s an underlying theme to all of the jobs — teacher.

As a child growing up in a lower socio-economic area of South Sacramento, I had three dreams that I kept quietly inside: be a TV reporter in a big city, do anything related to PBS (PBS was a teacher of sorts — I learned English and was entertained by Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and be a teacher. Dreams I was embarrassed to share because they weren't the American dreams my parents had for me.

Looking back, I can’t help but get chills writing this blog. Why? Because, despite my sordid start, I achieved all three dreams (and more) by the age of 30. When I was 10, I remember how I had thought that my voice DID NOT matter. Who would want to listen to this Chinese boy’s message? What did I have to say that was of worth anyway? I didn’t think I had a message or a gift to give anyone.

Little did I know that I would manifest my dreams ten-fold. Yes, I am literally a teacher at the university level, but I feel like I'm teaching and learning from every facet of my life as the founder of Go Inspire Go and through our Go Inspire Go "Community Heroes" Youth Lesson on Compassion program.

I believe everyone we meet are our teachers — everybody! The nice, and even not so pleasant folks, teach us something and add value to our lives. I had many teachers along the way. Here are three who impacted my life personally, professionally and spiritually.

1. Ma (my grandmother)

Ah Ma was my father’s mother who helped raised us. She struggled more than anyone I’ve ever met. She lost her husband in her early 20s, fled China and became homeless with three children. She would eventually outlive all five of her children. Throughout all the heartache and challenges, she always seemed to embody a sense of joy. I remember being by her side throughout my childhood soaking in her grandmotherly wisdom. She instilled morals, values and life lessons through her stories, wounds and words. She taught me to be kind, humble and live in balance. She was my first hero.

Toan Lam and his grandmother

2. Carolyn Weber

Carolyn is a tall, beautiful, wickedly intelligent woman who was an assistant professor at my alma mater, the University of San Francisco. She was the first person to validate my obsession with the art of human connection, creative writing and helped me discover my gift for connecting with people through conversation.

Growing up with immigrant Asian parents who wanted me to be a “doctor, lawyer, engineer” was stressful. Secretly, I wanted to do something with words instead. I wanted to become a writer, journalist and teacher. When I was younger, I would often read the words on shampoo bottles aloud in the shower: “Rinse, lather, repeat.” I would read my favorite children’s books aloud, pretending to give each one a unique voice. I would dream that one day, I could tell everyone stories for a living and use the power I knew I had to help people realize their own power.

Carolyn Weber
Taking Carolyn’s class ignited the power inside of me. I remember the first assignment: write a one-page paper about a moment in your life that changed you. I don’t remember what I wrote about — that’s how petrified I was that she would expose me. Scenarios played in my 20-something-year-old head as to how she would react and rip me a new one. I feared that she would tell me that I didn’t belong in her class.

The next week, I sauntered to her class, palms sweaty, heart beating, blurred vision. She handed me the paper and in perfect red penmanship it read, “You are such a gifted and lively writer. What will you do with your talents?”

For the first time in my life, someone validated my passion and my gift, which became an integral part of my life’s work.

3. Oprah

Although I haven’t met Lady O (yet), she has had a huge impact on my young self. As a kid, I didn’t see any Asian male TV hosts and very few Asian males on TV. I remember watching most of her shows, even the ones that didn’t resonate with me (like the “Are you wearing the wrong bra?” episode) so I could study the way she read the prompter and connected to her viewers and audience. It didn’t seem like she was reading, rather, it seemed she was just talking to us.

I realized that she wasn’t in the business of TV. Her show was the vehicle to deliver the stories to her fans. She was in the business of connecting people. It didn’t seem to matter whether she was interviewing celebrities like Julia Roberts or a homeless, transgendered person. She still made you feel their pain and celebrate their triumphs.

She taught me about being my authentic self, having the courage to follow my passion and to use my talents — and platform — to serve humanity. The trajectory of my life changed after hearing her say, “Once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t.” Those words planted the seed for what I do today.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was: If you give yourself permission to dream, dare to follow your passion and set your intentions into action, you manifest what Oprah says is the “fullest expression of yourself.”

I think the highest honor and the biggest gift you can give to others is to teach them something that’s added value to your life. It is then that the gift will be regifted. I learned that you don't have to be rich or famous to make a difference. Although it would be fabulous to say, "You get a car, and you get a car." LOL.

I have the best job in the world through Go Inspire Go. I discover everyday heroes, tell their authentic stories and leverage social media so that my viewers discover and use their true powers to help others. It’s because of these phenomenal teachers in my life that I’ve become my fullest self. I’ve found joy. That’s why I teach and that’s why I give. It doesn't get better than that!

Take Action

We want to hear stories of how a teacher has impacted your life. Share below or tweet using hashtags #GoInspireGo and #NationalTeacherDay.

Hit share if you care, please share on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or comment.

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April 24, 2014

Igniting the Power within YOU and YOUR Community

What’s your power?

It’s a loaded question, but if you are brave and present enough to try and answer this question, the trajectory of your whole life could transform.

Like nature, our lives are filled with wonder. The intelligence, connectedness and energy surrounding every cell in our bodies has a purpose. And while there’s beauty in nature, there is also chaos. That’s OK. Become friends with chaos, as it will lead you to the blossoms and fruit you’re intended to bear.

I believe we are all here on Earth for a reason. We are called to something bigger than we could ever imagine.

It took me a lot of struggle and I’ve had more than my fair share of chaos culminating in my life before finding my passion work, @GoInspireGo. I learned that my power is inspiring people to discover their power and sparking them to use it to help others.

One of those people is Kala Shah, whom I met two years ago at a LinkedIn networking event. She, like many parents, felt overwhelmed. With three kids under eight-years-old — two of them, rambunctious twins — who could blame her?

She told me that beyond juggling her daily schedule -- shuttling kids around, running the house, being a good friend, family and community member -- she was looking for that next step in her career that would allow her to keep life in balance. Deep down inside, she was also searching for ways to teach her kids about gratitude, compassion and service.

Be careful what you wish for! Like a flower needs a bee, we found one another. I told her that I was creating a lesson on compassion for the youth through my nonprofit, Go Inspire Go, and wanted to get my message into schools.

She invited me to speak at her kids' school, Sun Valley Elementary in San Rafael, Calif., about being a community hero -- how everyone has the power to use their talents to help others. Of course, we captured it on video. The seeds of an innovative, creative and inspirational program was born. With a lot of planning, elbow grease and organizing, two years later the Go Inspire Go Community Heroes Club has taken root in her community and blossomed into a model program to engage young kids in community service. All the while having a lot of fun!

Kala vowed to meet with the kids every other week during their lunch hour to give them a platform to organize their thoughts and take action:

1. She shows them a Go Inspire Go video.
2. They talk about this problem (the video presents in their community).
3. They brainstorm ways to be the change.
4. They take action -- collecting clothes, toys and household goods and money while partnering with local trusted non-profits.
5. We share their good works on social media.

Words can’t describe the excitement in the kids’ eyes as Kala meets with them. The jubilation in the room as kids brainstorm how they can be of service to others is magical.

My hope is that this video will inspire you to ask yourself two simple, but life altering questions: “What is my power?” and “How can I use it to help others?” The result: JOY. I promise. Dare to click on this video below and own your power.

I know that every one of us has a bee-like mentality. We are searching (and are here) for a purpose. We want to find that purpose, be validated, feel loved and innately, we want to share it. Kala’s light was dim when I met her more than two years ago. As you can see in the Community Heroes videos, her light is powered on a higher voltage now. And while Kala’s, the kids’ and the community’s futures seem bright, they are the ones illuminating it all along.

Thanks to a LinkedIn innovation grant, Kala and I are piloting this youth program (and digital toolkit) at Sun Valley School. We are working on bringing this program to other schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Eventually, we'll expand the program into middle schools and high schools, where the kids will create videos and snap pics of their own to share via social media. Community heroes -- coming soon to your neighborhood! It's easy, it's fun and it's impactful. Come join us!

Take Action:

Whether you're a parent or have a youngster in your life, watch and feel reinvigorated to challenge yourself to be a change agent.

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March 6, 2014

Go Inspire Go 50/50 Hero No. 4: How Hip-Hop is Saving Lives, Creating Humanitarians

What comes to mind when you hear the term “hip-hop?”

You may think of rap, street music and gangs, but probably not humanity.

Hip-hop's roots started in the 1970s with Kool Herc, who believed the music's beats and lyrics were supposed to set a tone of harmony as an alternative to gang and street life.

As a part of Go Inspire Go's 50 heroes in 50 states initiative, I'd like for you to meet our fourth heroes, Chad Harper and Johwell Saint-Cilien. Their program, Kids Helping Kids (KHK): A Hip Hop Experience, is a collaboration of their passion projects, Hip Hop Saves Lives and Negus World. They reach out to hundreds of at-risk youth from New York City schools, incarcerated youth and homeless teen centers. The goal: teaching humanity through hip-hop and creating humanitarians.

Photo by Toan Lam

Hip Hop Saves Lives

Who: Johwell Saint-Cilien & Chad Harper
What: "We don't just teach humanity through Hip Hop, we create humanitarians."
Where: New York
Why: Reinstate the true meaning of hip-hop, entertain and save lives of youth

The Catalyst

Chad with KHK Students. Courtesy: KHK
In 2006, Chad Harper felt like he was on top of the world. Making music, living in the Big Apple, pursuing what he thought was his dream: to become a hip-hop recording artist. He was headed in that direction until a record deal fell through.

Saddened by his record deal situation, he turned to music, hoping to reach a higher note. Little did he know, this would change the trajectory of his personal, professional and spiritual trajectory and along the way, he would inspire, empower and change the lives of hundreds of kids on the streets near and far.

The Act

Chad was bartending in New York when he heard about Charity Water, a nonprofit with a mission to bring clean drinking water to people in all corners of the world. He wrote "If Everybody Cared," a song about how together we can solve big world problems like hunger and poverty. "I would give print out the lyrics and give them to people who bought the CD," Harper said. "One lady started crying. I really felt that, wow, I am really affecting people."

Chad realized, "Hip Hop Saves Lives" and could be a powerful instrument in orchestrating change in his community, especially with lowering crime and violence. He partnered with Johwell and the rest is history.

Johwell and KHK Students. Courtesy: KHK

Here's how it works:
1. Every week, they meet at a school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to research and learn more about everyday heroes on the Internet.
2. They write and record hip-hop songs and choreograph dances celebrating the hero.
3. Johwell produces the music videos.
4. The result: An entertaining, inspiring and fun music video that is gifted to the hero.
5. Every semester, CDs are sold at a FUNdraising party. All of the profits go to schools in Haiti (and soon Africa) for education and clean drinking water.

The Ripples

  • To date, their program "Kids Helping Kids: A Hip Hop Experience" has touched and changed more than 500 kids from New York, Haiti and Africa. They've raised more than $3,200 for education and school lunches in Port-Au-Prince and St.-Louis-du-Sud, Haiti. Attendance, grades and graduation rates have increased among KHK students.
  • Performed at the United Nations on Oct 17, 2013, for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
  • Invited to do a presentation about KHK at Gandhi's Ashram
  • Authors of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens" asked KHK to produce and write a song for their national curriculum titled, "The Leader in Me."

  • But to feel the true impact of how this program changes and saves lives, you have to meet the kids and listen to their harrowing stories. Kids like Teriana Justin and Moise Morancy.

    Courtesy: KHK

    Moise enrolled in the program at a critical point in his life. When I met Moise a few months ago, it was hard to believe that just one year ago, he was an angry, violent, out-of-control teen. "I always used to get into a lot of fights and I thought that was a normal thing," Moise said.

    Throwing fits, fists and chairs was commonplace in his everyday life. Things got so bad, he threatened to hurt his high school principal. That's when a teacher told Moise about Chad and Johwell, who became the mentors and father figures Moise never had. They saw through Moise's tough exterior and sensed something special. "You can see it (passion) in his eyes," Johwell said. "He came into the program already an Internet sensation."

    Moise’s most popular YouTube video had more than 12,000 views. Still, Chad challenged him to go back to the positive roots of hip-hop and inspired him to take a positive spin on his music -- to produce from the heart, not what he hears on the airwaves. "There is a lot of negative language in that song but I thought, I want to challenge (him) to do a true hip-hop song," Chad said. The result was "Mommas Secret,” a story Moise was once was afraid to share with his friends about his mom living with HIV.

    When I asked Chad and Johwell why this unique program of using hip-hop to produce humanitarians works, they said, "Youth, they have so much energy and they have so much power and our formula harnesses that and gives it a platform."

    No matter who we are -- isn't that what every human being wants in life? To be seen, heard and felt.

    What's next for KHK? They just launched the program in Africa in Liberia and Ghana. Their next fundraiser is on April 12, 2014, with the goal of raising $3,500 for clean water.

    What can YOU do?!

    Take Action
    1. Learn more and support

    2. To buy an album, go to:

    3. Collaborate artistically or use your talents to help Kids Helping Kids: A Hip Hop Experience.
    #   #   #

    For more information on our 50/50 campaign, check out our blog: 50 Heroes, 50 States, 1 Inspiring Journey!

    Hit share if you care, please share on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or comment.

    Join us & Go Inspire Go…

    February 25, 2014

    Super-Sizing Community Heroes with a Day of Giving

    By Kala Shah

    I can barely contain my excitement as I scurry around preparing for our big, upcoming Day of Giving event at Sun Valley School in San Rafael, Calif.

    The dreams I had when I started the Go Inspire Go Community Heroes club a little over a year and a half ago are really starting to manifest in so many amazing and unexpected ways. I had hoped that I could offer a platform to contemplate about how lucky we are and perhaps get a few kids involved in some modest service projects.

    The club has been meeting for 3½ semesters now, every other week over lunch break, during which we watch and discuss Go Inspire Go’s inspirational videos and brainstorm ways in which we can all give back -- no matter what our background or circumstance. These videos are touching, stirring, thought- and action-provoking. It is astounding the stories that Toan Lam has been able to produce with his band of loyal volunteers around the world.

    These videos provide the spark for the Community Hero kids, and then we go out and DO things. And we’ve done a lot! Many successful collection drives for coats, clothes, household supplies, toys, gifts and books support several local non-profits (Canal Alliance, Next Generation Scholars, Adopt a Family, Marin Community Clinic) that are serving those in need here in Marin County (believe me, despite what you think, there are plenty of people in need here).

    Every time I’ve put the word out to our awesome school community (with much help from my very supportive Parent Teacher Organization and school principal Julie Harris), the response has been overwhelming, Overflowing bins, checks, loose change, smiles, hugs and words of encouragement have kept me and the Community Heroes kids fueled and driven to want to do more.

    Well, my hopes and dreams are coming alive. The seeds of compassion and empathy have really started to sprout. These kids are enthusiastic, excited and have monstrous and ever-growing hearts! Their aspirations are so big and broad that they’ve been pushing to do even more -- more bake sales, more fun projects to help others. I was beginning to wonder how we could possible do it all.

    It’s funny how they’ve turned the tables on me -- THEY’RE driving ME to do more. So when I ran into my friend and fellow Sun Valley mom Ilene and she mentioned the Day of Giving a local Jewish Community Center conducts annually, we had an ah-ha moment. We could do this at our school! Take Community Heroes family-wide, school-wide and COMMUNITY-wide!

    Fast forward several months and here we are preparing for five awesome community service activities around our town on Sunday, March 2, for a DAY OF GIVING. We’ll meet on campus to rally the troops over coffee and juice and inspirational videos, and then head out in teams for various projects. Each of these projects was inspired by a Go Inspire Go video:

    * Cooking a hot lunch for Marin homeless families served by Homeward Bound of Marin, inspired by Jorge Munoz, Angel in Queens, N.Y.

    * Gardening work party with Canal Alliance’s Community Garden, inspired by Hands on Bay Area Be the Change

    * Making superhero capes for brave kids with cancer at Children's Hospital of Oakland (Calif.), inspired by Amy Pankratz, Wonder Capes, Sioux Falls, S.D.

    * Tidying and beautifying our campus and local parks, inspired by Go Inspire Go’s blog about helping change the ocean litter problem

    * Running multiple lemonade stands and bake sales around town to raise funds to cover expenses for all these great projects, inspired by Vivienne Harr, Make a Stand Lemonade

    After we complete our projects, we’ll reconvene at school to share experiences over pizza. Doesn’t all that just sound amazing?! So excited!

    Here are some pictures of the posters the kids made for the event. And from our sign-waving extravaganza at morning drop-off.

    Stay tuned for more pictures, videos and for more inspirational stories that will come from what is sure to be a GREAT DAY!!

    Watch out world, thanks to our LinkedIn for Good Social Innovation grant, we’re going to take this Community Heroes show on the road!

    Take action:

    1. Think about how to be the change in our own community. Be inspired by 5-year-old Phoebe Russell’s super-sized canned food drive.

    2. Think twice about how much an impact a young person can make. Be inspired by 12-year-old Thomas Ponce, animal activist.

    3. Start your own Community Heroes club at your child’s school. Stay tuned for more information soon on how or contact

    January 31, 2014

    Go Inspire Go 50/50 Hero No. 3: 12-Year-Old Animal Rights Activist

    Did you make any resolutions? If so, how is it going meeting those goals?

    I choose not to make resolutions -- instead, I make aspirations. Resolutions make me feel that I have not met expectations and that's a very uninspiring way to start the year.

    I like to put a positive spin on goal-making, by setting aspirations. I hope to inspire you to challenge yourself to aspire to new heights. Take you to the next level -- YOU 2.0.

    I strive to be more organized, which includes Go Inspire Go syndication, to be more deliberate with carving out time with loved ones and to be less serious and have “fun” with every aspect of my life.

    Last year, I aspired to crowdfund and crowdsource Go Inspire Go stories. My team and I had an innovative and interactive goal of spotlighting 50 heroes in 50 states. It resulted in an extremely successful campaign, numerous blessings and new friendships. We traveled to New York, Florida, Arizona, Georgia and Southern California to meet heroes through the support of our viewers. Thank you to everyone who made this journey possible.

    Please meet our third “50/50” hero, 12-year-old Thomas Ponce from Florida. He has a special gift of inspiring people to protect animals through his infectious poise and passion. He's the voice for creatures who can only meow, woof and (fill in your favorite animal sound here). Through his website,, he teaches his global audience how to lobby for animal rights.

    I was in awe after meeting this accomplished tween, who has the poise of a seasoned elected official and a heart of gold. You just want to do something, anything, after hearing him speak. Nearly everyone Thomas touches says they were inspired to take action by his message: “Don't Just Dream of Change, Lobby for It!”

    See out how he inspired an animal rights lawyer in New York and lawmaker in Florida to help him help animals. Can we give him a high five helping hand? (Or at least a high five social media shout out here?) His goal: to educate people with the power to better and save the lives of animals.

    12-Year-Old Animal Rights Activist

    Who: Thomas Ponce
    What: Educates and Inspires People to Speak Up for Animals via
    Where: Casselberry, Florida
    Why: Discovered his passion at age 4, after Mother gave him a chicken nugget

    The Catalyst

    Courtesy: Thomas Ponce
    Thomas Ponce from Casselberry, Fla., discovered his passion for protection animals at age 4. His inspiration? A chicken nugget. That's when Thomas' mom, Kim, served him chicken nuggets for the first time and told him they were made from chickens.

    “I made that two and two connection," Thomas said. "You know a chicken was killed to make a chicken nugget. I just decided I didn’t want to contribute to that cruelty anymore,” explaining his impetus for animal advocacy.

    The Act

    Courtesy: Thomas Ponce
    Thomas joined animal rights organizations and spent countless hours on the picket line -- all in the name of educating about animal protection and inspiring people to do what they can to alleviate animal cruelty.

    He took his passion for animal rights to the next level and is now teaching people how to lobby their politicians to protect animals through his website,

    When Thomas attended the National Animal Rights conference in Washington D.C., he met animal rights attorney Jessica Astrof.

    "This young man raised his hand and asked us questions like, 'I need to know how I can get funding for my organization,' " Astrof said. "I was shocked to see that he looked like he was only 10 or 11 years old."

    The Ripples

    It's hard not to be persuaded by Thomas' infectious energy. His parents no longer eat meat. One former teacher says he no longer goes to the circus.

    "I chose to be vegan because I choose to live a compassionate cruelty free life, not just because I don’t want to eat meat. I try my hardest to bring as little harm to any living being as possible and that message is important to me to get out," Thomas said.

    Last year, Thomas presented research around shark finning to Florida State Senator David Simmons. The senator was inspired to draft a bill that would prohibit the possession, sale, trade, purchase, shipping, barter, exchange and distribution of shark fins. It is being reviewed by several committees.

    Thomas’ hope is that everyone his story touches will do something, anything in the name of animal rights.

    In the words of Thomas Ponce, “Don't Just Dream of Change, Lobby for It!”

    What can YOU do?!

    Take Action
    1. Learn more and support Lobby For Animals (

    2. Be the change. Find legislative issues affecting animals in your state, county, city or local community. Call and write your lawmakers.

    3. Do whatever is in your power to take action against animal cruelty, testing and abuse.

                                                                               #   #   #
    For more information on our 50/50 campaign, check out our blog: 50 Heroes, 50 States, 1 Inspiring Journey!

    Hit share if you care, please share, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or comment.
    Join us & Go Inspire Go…

    December 31, 2013

    Go Inspire Go 50/50 Hero No. 2: L.A. Man Loans Homeless Family House for a Year

    Happy New Year! What an amazing whirlwind it has been for us here at Go Inspire Go this year. How exciting is it that we've been getting more story ideas, producing more and creating more inspiring stories that spark action!

    Every year, instead of making resolutions, I prefer to do two simple things.

    First, count my blessings. It may be easier to write them down so you can physically see them. When you do this, you then realize how abundant your life is, no matter the circumstances.

    Here's my list:

    1. Most importantly my breath: We all have this to be thankful for
    2. Connections to people new and old - this is what we all need to be happy
    3. Health, started Crossfit and feeling fit inside and out
    4. Community, all of my 90+ volunteers who spend countless hours to bring you this content, my heart is full! Thank you.
    5. Simple everyday things: food, shelter, my comfy bed, warm laundry fresh out of the dryer, the faith that I am experiencing exactly what I'm supposed to be going through and am in the perfect place in my life (even though there are challenges, pain and growth) and loved ones who care for me, cry with me and laugh with me. (OK, that's more than five -- but there are so many things to be grateful for!)

    I dare you to make a list and check it twice mid-year to see what has blossomed.

    Second, time to take action and do one kind thing for someone else!

    We all can do one thing TODAY to make someone else's life better. Yes, YOU have the power to make a difference both big and small.

    Last year, my Go Inspire Go team and I had a crazy idea that has manifested ten-fold. Our goal of spotlighting 50 heroes in 50 states has resulted in numerous blessings, miracles and new friendships. We're so excited to unveil our second hero to you.

    This New Year, please count your blessings and do one kind act. Here's a story that will motivate and inspire you!

    Man Loans Homeless Family House for a Year 

    Who: Tony Tolbert, UCLA Lecturer & Attorney
    What: Offered Homeless Woman and her four children home for one year
    Where: Los Angeles
    Why: Inspired by Tony's Father and Family in Atlanta

    The Catalyst

    Many people we know do not believe or know how they can make a difference. "I don't have time" or "I don't have money” are common statements.

    It’s refreshing to meet people who seek ways to make a difference. People like Tony Tolbert, a UCLA lecturer and attorney in Los Angeles. Tony read an article that inspired him to think, "What can I do?" and decided to loan his house to a homeless family for one year.

    Tony says the seed of generosity was planted early on by his late father, James Tolbert, who always welcomed people (who weren't friends) to stay in their home. "I don't remember a time when there wasn't someone in need, staying in our home."  Tony says the story of Kevin and Hannah Salwen of Atlanta sparked action. The Salwens sold their 6,500 square foot house, downsized to a house half its size, and donated more than $800,000 from the proceeds. They wrote a book and named their project "The Power of Half."

    “It struck a chord, a visceral emotion," Tony explained. He posed the same challenge to himself that we ask at the end of all of our Go Inspire Go videos and blogs: "What can YOU do?"

    Tony's response will inspire you to ask yourself this question and take action.

     The Act

    Tony decided to give his home - no strings attached, to someone in need for a dollar a month. At age 51, Tony moved back with his mom and gave up his home to a homeless woman and her four children for a full year. "I thought he was out of his right mind," Tony's mom Marie said emphatically.

    The lucky recipient, Felicia Dukes, a single mother of four, couldn't believe that a stranger could be so generous. Her youngest daughter was one when they were living on the streets. Dukes explained that she fell behind on her bills when she gave birth to her daughter. She turned to Alexandria House, a transitional shelter, but her eldest son, Kima, was unable to live with them because of an age limit. Tony felt Felicia and her family were a great fit because they could live together in his home.

    He offered the fully furnished three-bedroom, two-bath home in southwest Los Angeles. “Let this be home for a year," Tony said. "It’s yours do what you want, decorate it, enjoy your space.”

    Tony says this experiment in generosity taught him many life lessons. See how Tony’s gesture taught him and Felicia the real meaning of "home."

    The Ripples

    Stories of giving are infectious and so are the ripple effects. Both Tony and Felicia grew personally and spiritually from this experience. We are excited that Felicia is ready mentally and fiscally to move forward. When people heard about Tony's kind act, they also asked themselves, “What can I do?”

    Here are just a few ripples that continue to billow out:
    - Felicia and her family have moved out of Tony's home are now living in an apartment on their own.
    - Personal performance coach Orlando Bishop with Align Performance voluntarily meets with Felicia to help her identify and achieve her personal and professional goals.
    - A dentist learned about this story and donates dental services to Felicia and her family.
    - Charysse Tia Harper, with Xplore the World, was inspired to create a documentary on Tony's story. Her crew followed Dukes and her family around for a year.

     Tony says he will give his home to another homeless family in 2014. He hopes his story will inspire you too. “Most of us want to contribute to something beyond ourselves. Sometimes it requires a reminder that the way we treat people and what we do in the world actually matters,” Tony said.

    He hopes even more people will be inspired to give what they can this new year.

    "You don't have to be a billionaire to make a difference." Tony explained. "We all have something to give to make a contribution to someone else's life. What we do does matter."

    Yes, YOU matter. YOU can make a difference. The first step is doing something. All big ripples start from a single action. What can YOU do in 2014 to better the world? We hope this story hit home in your heart. We want to hear about it in the comments section.

    Meanwhile, we leave you with this quote from the late Nelson Mandela: "As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."

    What can YOU do?!

    Take Action
    1. Learn more about Alexandria House and support its great work in helping women and children move from a transitional shelter into permanent housing.
    2. Consider what you can contribute (time, skills, resources) that might make a difference in someone else's life.
    3. Give or share something (little or big) with someone today.

                                                                               #   #   #
    For more information on our 50/50 campaign, check out our blog: 50 Heroes, 50 States, 1 Inspiring Journey!

    Hit share if you care, please share, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or comment.
    Join us & Go Inspire Go…

    December 20, 2013

    Community Heroes Adopt a Family Holiday Initiative

    By Kala Shah

    As a mother of three, I try my best to maintain perspective around the holidays and not lose track of what they’re really all about. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the year-end hustle and bustle — last-minute gift buying, parties, parking hassles, travel logistics and yes, inevitably STRESS.

    I feel so fortunate to have the Go Inspire Go Community Heroes club to remind me to be present and keep focused on the important stuff — gratitude for family, friends and taking care of those who need a hand. I started the club at Sun Valley Elementary School in San Rafael, Calif., back in the fall of 2012 along with Toan Lam of Go Inspire Go to provide a platform for kids in my community to foster compassion and act to give back locally. Oh my, what a wonderful ride it’s been ever since!

    For our holiday initiative, we teamed up with Adopt a Family of Marin, a great local organization that helps stabilize struggling families in Marin County, Calif., going through difficult circumstances. AAF provides essential safety-net services to these families — short-term financial assistance for housing, food vouchers, counseling. Around the holidays, they match families with those in the community who want to help ease their burden.

    Santa's minivan ready to deliver to Adopt a Family. (Photo by Kala Shah)
    The Community Heroes kids were so excited to adopt two families: the Abundants and the Angelics (names changed). Dulce Abundant wears many hats. As a hard-working mom of a 3-year-old daughter, Bella Danielle, she holds down a full-time job AND is a full-time student. Needless to say, the Abundants live on a very tight budget. Dulce is making her way toward a brighter future, waiting for the day she graduates and is able to provide a better life for her daughter.

    Abrenna Angelic, mom to energetic twin 2-year old boys (bless her heart, I remember those days!), recently lost her job and is waiting for unemployment benefits to kick in. She had no idea how she was going to pay her rent, much less get winter coats for herself or her sons. Being accepted into AAF’s holiday program has given Abrenna hope that she’ll make it through this rough period in her life and even have a merry Christmas with her boys.

    The Community Heroes kids really want to know these families’ stories and understand what they’re experiencing. They care so much! We’ve talked about how these are real people, living in our very own town, and how we can all go through tough times and need a hand. My heart swelled when one of the kids said with conviction, “That could be ME. It could be any of us.” Yes, this forum is working! It’s not about us and them. We’re ALL human beings who need to look out for each other — especially when times are tough.

    Coach Chad and the Community Hero elves hard at work. (Photo by Kala Shah)
    I shared the Abundants’ and Angelics’ wish lists with the school community and WOW!!! What an overwhelming response! Every time I checked the collection bin, it was filled to the brim with everything from household essentials like detergent, lotion and pots and pans to warm and fuzzy coats, hats and mittens, new clothes for the moms and some great toys for the three little toddlers. Way to open your hearts and your wallets, Sun Valley families! You have shown once again what an amazingly generous and kind-hearted community in which I am blessed to live.

    The day of our end-of-semester party, the kids burst into the multi-purpose room, so ready to wrap presents and make cards for these families!. Many didn’t even want to eat lunch (I made them do so, anyway). The Ho-Ho-Ho paper and bows were soon flying — such a happy buzz in the air! Our awesome principal Julie Harris walked in, took a deep breath and summed it up. “WOW, this is amazing!” she said.

    More kids than ever before showed up — at least 70 kids gave up their lunchtime to be a part of this happy celebration. We talked again about these families and how lucky we are to be able to help and how we will continue to help others throughout the year. Thanks to the great parents who showed up to pitch in as well as our beloved physical education coach Chad, we had all these presents wrapped and ready to deliver in our Santa minivan!

    Happily, the Abundant and Angelic families will have gifts under their Christmas trees! (Photo by Kala Shah)
    The Community Heroes club has been going gangbusters for a year and a half now. We’re getting bigger and gaining traction as more kids participate and more parents help out. I’m thrilled and honored to report that we’ve just received a LinkedIn for Good Social Innovation grant to replicate and scale the Community Heroes program! Watch out world, very soon our Community Heroes are gonna be making the world a much better place near YOU!

    This stuff is contagious, I tell ya! It’s clear there’s a hunger these young kids have to give back. Just imagine the impact these kids will be making by the time they’re in high school. I’m so proud to be able to shepherd these wonderful students and to grow along with them. I can’t wait for all the great things to come in the new year. Happy Holidays and many blessings to you and yours!

    Interested in starting your own Community Heroes club? --Stay tuned for a curriculum and tool kit to get one started in your school! Thanks again, LinkedIn for Social Good! --Check out these videos for inspiration about the power kids have to start movements in their communities: Matthew Kaplan and the Be O.N.E Anti-Bullying Project and 5-year-old Phoebe Russell’s super-sized canned food drive.