How my team of volunteers fulfilled a promise to help Vietnamese children.
This article is from the April 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.
When I left Vietnam as a teenager, nine years after the Fall of Saigon, I hadn’t finished teaching Minh to read. He was an illiterate 8-year-old whose parents harbored me for a few days leading up to my forbidden journey across the pirate-infested Gulf of Thailand from the southern tip of the Mekong Delta—Cape Ca Mau.
Crouching on a rickety boat amidst a vast body of water under the moonless night, I couldn’t escape the image of Minh waiting for me with a crumpled newspaper that his mother used as wrapping paper. Every night by the fainted, flickering light from a rusty oil lamp, Minh patiently traced each article and eagerly sounded out the words he recognized and asked for my help with the others. Feeling that my work was not finished, I vowed to one day return and build schools for the less fortunate children in the rural, remote regions of Vietnam.
After decades of struggling to overcome the culture shock, the language barrier and the financial hardship of living in a different country—the United States—I had not made progress on my school-building promise. It was nothing more than a warm thought of yesteryear. The hectic life of chasing the American dream had piled upon me layers and layers of roles and responsibilities.
Then, 16 years ago I attended a Toastmasters meeting. Along the way, while improving my communication and leadership skills, I reconnected with who I used to be—the teenager with a daring dream. But this time, I had accumulated the essential tools I needed and was ready for construction.
Share Your Dream with the Right People
In 2007, in my first trip back to Vietnam, I went as a professional to consult the country’s scientists on tsunami forecasting and warning systems. I also leveraged what I had learned from Toastmasters about telling personal stories, as I spoke to a small audience about my life story and passion for developing compassionate leaders and inspiring them to make a difference in the lives of others. The next thing I knew, more and more groups began asking me to speak and to teach them, their companies and organizations about personal and professional topics, including building schools and minimizing damage from tsunamis.
Soon, other non-business groups invited to me speak. I retold the story of my past again and again, to larger and larger crowds.
Six more years passed, and in 2013, I moved forward with one of my personal goals and founded the Leadership Foundation Academy (LFA) to train, mentor and inspire future business leaders and teach the “Passion Meets Compassion” philosophy. I secure space at various venues, such as conference halls, schools or corporations, where I conduct my classes designed to help attendees think fast, act with confidence and develop a caring attitude. Students, trainers, presenters, technical professionals, project managers and business executives attend my classes, and I award Certificates of Completion to those who finish. Some of my LFA students are now assisting me with teaching. Class schedules are listed at www.leadershipfoundationacademy.com/classes.html. This year, my classes are available in San Diego, where my academy is based, as well as in three cities in Vietnam.
And then, finally, in May 2015, my goal to open schools for young children in Vietnam came closer to being realized. It happened after I presented a “How to Motivate Your Team to Build Your Dream” seminar in Ho Chi Minh City. Dinh Hong Duyen, a graduate of the LFA, approached me and confided that she had the same dream of serving the poor children of Vietnam. We collaborated on the details of a “Build a School—Leave a Legacy” bricks-and-mortar project with the help of compassionate leaders in Vietnam and elsewhere. We discussed the role of the local government’s Office of Education and Development, and followed up with a detailed budget and a schedule and permits to initiate the construction of a three-classroom kindergarten school near Vietnam’s mountainous border with China.
Four months later, when I returned to Vietnam to teach seminars, I took my LFA team on a six-hour ride from Hanoi to Ha Giang province. We traveled first by car, then by motorbike, and then walked a quarter-mile. Finally, amid the picturesque rice paddies stacked up against the backdrop of a blue sky, we opened the Dong Tam school to 53 wide-eyed, bright-smiling young learners.
By sharing our dream with the right people, my team not only improved the probability of success for new projects, we also accelerated existing projects to reach new heights.
Develop a Plan
A plan is crucial when developing a team to execute a vision, especially when work is to be done in another country. It’s impossible for my team to serve in Vietnam without the help of the country’s local leaders, especially when we are 9,000 miles away from the school construction sites.
Through a remote mentorship, we coached Hua Lam Thanh, a passionate graduate of the LFA, who had written us a heartfelt letter offering his help to build our second school. My team set a clear goal for Thanh to fundraise and build a one-classroom kindergarten in Yen Bai province. He recruited two other LFA graduates, Pham Huu Loc and Lam Ngoc Thuy, to lead additional efforts. Another graduate, Pham Quynh Lan, armed with excellent marketing and communication skills, got involved in the effort. Through a call-to-action letter, they made contact with 56 colleagues, friends and family members and raised donations.
My team worked closely with the Office of Education and Development, national media and news reporters in Vietnam to ensure proper accountability and transparency. In the era of a global war on terrorism and the anti-money laundering laws in the United States, it is essential to secure the proper documentation of monetary donations to a foreign governmental agency.
In November 2015, local leaders and supporters traveled all night to a mountainous location to decorate and help with the grand opening of this new school for 44 excited children. With two schools completed in five months, my team now has the confidence to plan for at least three more new schools this year. Our goal is to expand our footprint from Vietnam’s Northern border to meet children’s needs in the Central province and Southern delta region of the country.
Believe in Your Dream, Passion and Compassion
While it’s easy to get excited in the beginnings of a dream, a vision, a cause; it takes a lot of courage and determination to keep it going every day. Unlike the friendly, supportive environment we are accustomed to in Toastmasters clubs and meetings, some of our naysayers were hard to cope with at first. Some belittled our efforts, others doubted we could even obtain a permit, let alone build a school with a budget of less than $8,000. Nonetheless, we remained focused on the need, the right partners and the faithful leaders.
We rely on our Toastmasters training to communicate our cause. Each conversation leads to another supporter. Meeting new groups results in more donations. When we take our passion (whatever we love to do) and add compassion (whatever we’re meant to do for the less-fortunate)—and keep going—our dreams will become reality.
And for my childhood friend Minh, after 31 years of an innocent promise, the window of opportunity for me to advance his literacy is missed. But, others need help, as well. For example, the children of Ca Mau, where my journey began, are challenged each day as they travel to and from school. They must cross a spider web of rivers, streams and creeks via slippery, clay walkways and single-coconut-trunk bridges when walking is unfeasible. Some cross in large baskets or rubber tires, while others pedal their way during the rainy season. Floods and strong currents often sweep away the children who slip and fall. Without timely rescue, these children often drown in the vast bodies of water.
My team funded the construct of a 30-meter (about 98 feet) bridge in Cape Ca Mau to provide the young students safe passage. We celebrated the bridge’s grand opening in January. Perhaps the children of Minh, who once traced his index finger on the crumpled newspaper of yesteryear, will soon count their footsteps across the new bridge.
Jimmy Thai, DTM, speaks to a global audience on how he transformed from being known as one of the “Boat People” refugees to become a Fortune 500 vice president. He is now living in San Diego, California. His Leadership Foundation Academy develops compassionate leaders to serve the less-fortunate.