Asheville Pay-it-Forward Network


By:Gloria Chan


Imagine yourself at a vending machine and finding that your drink had been paid for by the person before you as a Gift to you.  I cannot speak for you, but it would certainly brighten my day.  It’s not because I cannot afford the drink, but it is so uplifting to know that a “stranger” somewhere is reaching out to me.  I would certainly be moved to pay it forward to the next person. In a small way, I‘d feel connected to the person before and after me, and my insulated world would suddenly open up.
I fell in love with the concept of pay-it-forward the moment I read about it.  There has been some sporadic activities around the country in the last 10 years or so, based on the pay-it-forward philosophy, quite a number of which was orchestrated by and its off-shoot To me, pay-it-forward should be an intrinsic part of our life, and not a game, a gimmick, or a random act of benevolence that suddenly takes our fancy.  It is easy to understand HOW to do it but the important thing is to know WHY we do it.  It calls for a fundamental change in our way of thinking about our place in the world and our relationship to each other.
Modern civilization creates separation wherever we look. We no longer see the invisible link between us and the rest of the world. It’s time to rediscover that we would never have been who we are and where we are if not for the generations that preceded us, and the multitude of fellow human beings who all play a part in weaving together the life we enjoy today. Instead of taking each other for granted and regarding everything as a mere commodity that could be bought with money, we should appreciate them as a gift that deserves our honour and gratitude. We in turn need to pass the gift on (or pay it forward) but not to hold onto it as if we have unequivocal claim.  These gifts have to be circulated or it will soon come to an end. 
With the economy in the shape it is in now, there is an increasing tendency for people to cut back on spending (and giving).  However, money, like any other form of gift, has to be circulated. That is why it is called currency.  Of course, this is not an excuse for consumerism. We need to re-think how to allocate our limited resources and invest in areas that will support the community and our environment in the long run. Instead of thinking “more for you and less for me”, we should see it as “more for you and more for you to spend (on the community)”. What goes around comes around. In the end, it will be “more for you and more for me.” Everyone will benefit in this endless cycle of giving and receiving.
When I say pay-it-forward, the “payment” is not necessarily money.  Everyone has something to give, regardless of their financial circumstances.  There is often more magic in a non-monetary gift—like a kind hand you lend to a neighbour, or a comforting smile you give to a stranger.  They need not be as dramatic as what took place in the movie Pay It Forward. Sometimes, the smallest gift may have the greatest effect. I believe that it is in our human nature to give, and there is certainly more joy in giving than receiving.
It was my childhood dream to be a doctor for the poor.  It was probably the family tradition—my dentist grandfather and my physician mother often treated people for free.  When I became an acupuncturist, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Shrethsa, the first woman Ayurvedic doctor in Nepal, and Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, in their selfless dedication to bring healthcare to the most deprived corners of the world.  I toyed with the idea of running a charity clinic but never quite worked out the logistics.  Then the pay-it-forward concept dropped in my lap, just at the right time.  I found out about Dr. Aumatma’s Karma Clinic Network in California and adopted her model of the pay-it-forward clinic.  To put it simply, patients in a pay-it-forward are not asked to pay for their own treatment because it has already been paid for by the person(s) before them as a gift to them.  If they are touched by the generosity, they can choose to pay for the next person, or they can pay it forward in other ways, either donating their time and service, or performing an act of kindness to another person. Whether or not they pay, and how much they pay is entirely optional.  Somewhere down the line, there may be someone who genuinely cannot afford to pay in money, and the pay-it-forward system will allow me to extend my service to them without having to bankrupt myself.
More importantly, we wish to make the act of giving a part of the healing.  In holistic medicine, we see the interconnection between the body, mind, and spirit.  While acupuncture does cover these three aspects, we cannot overlook the wider context of how we are affected by the world around us.  A lot of modern ailments are directly or indirectly caused by a loss in our sense of purpose, our sense of identity, and our sense of belonging.  There is a deep yearning for connectedness that is not given adequate expression. I cannot help but ask myself whether there is any good treating someone without addressing this inner need.  If healing does not encompass the body, mind, spirit, and the environment around us, any benefits can only be short-lived.  In a small way, pay-it-forward in the clinic setting may fill this need.  We offer the opportunity for patients to experience gratitude for the gift they receive, the joy of giving to the next person (to whom the gift could be life-transforming), and to feel that they are connected to the persons before and after them as part of a giving community.   
There is now a growing number of people whom I call the “New Poor”.  They used to have a secured income and a good life. In our troubled economy, everything fell apart.  They are often reluctant to accept treatment for free.  They feel embarrassed that they have to live off the goodwill of other people.  This inhibition hopefully could be overcome when they understand the spirit of pay-it-forward.
I love my work. The one thing I hated was when I had to ask people to pay. Sometimes a prospective client called to enquire about my fees. If they did not go ahead and book an appointment because they were put off by the fee, I would feel so bad. It was not because I lost the business, but because I lost the chance to share my gift with them.  There is no word to describe how relieved I am now that I can do away with the price list.  My clinics have undergone a metamorphosis, from being a business to being a service—a place where healing is truly priceless and manifests a constant flow of gifts and gratitude.
I would be perfectly content if this were all the contribution I could make. I would carry on quietly doing my best to help one person at a time. However, I know I am not the only one with the desire to help others and give back to the community, especially here in Asheville. I was in total disbelief to learn that Charity Focus did not have a local chapter in Asheville. No, no, no, that cannot be true. This is the one place on earth with the highest concentration of loving and giving people. Every time I tell someone about my little pay-it-forward initiative, they all light up. It is like preaching to the converted.  A lot of holistic practitioners have already jumped on board and volunteered to have pay-it-forward days in their own practices. There may come a day when all businesses will be pay-it-forward in Asheville!
It may be unrealistic and impractical to expect all businesses to run on pay-it-forward, but it is not too much to ask for every single individual to do it.  We pay it forward all the time in our everyday life—we just don’t think of it as such. One example that immediately came to mind is parents giving unconditionally to their children, and those children pay it forward to their own children.  In the ecological cycle, pay it forward is often the only way.  People bartered extensively in a primitive society. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, we often “cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them”, so we have to pay forward.
Our vision is that everyone can take this to a new dimension, turning the automatic, unthinking act of pay-it-forward into a conscious deed. The main difference is that we have to be able to see what we receive as a gift and value it as such. Gratitude will naturally follow. We then give whatever we have to offer to somebody else as a gift, too. That requires a shift in our consciousness, replacing the consumer mentality with a gift mentality, and seeing the bond between us all. 
With this vision, the Asheville Pay It Forward Network came into being. We are now on and facebook. Our website is underway. As we believe that everyone can be a pay-it-forwarder, we encourage everyone to sign up and show their support.  Like the pay-it-forward clinics, we leave it to the individual to contribute whatever they can.  The least every one can do is to apply the pay-it-forward concept in their day-to-day activities. What we really need is to get the word out in the hope that we can create a new culture of gifts and gratitude.  The world is badly in need of a makeover, but real change in the reality outside requires inner transformation first. Gandhi’s famous quote is : Be the change you wish to see in the world.  
Pay-it-Forward is not the answer for everything, but it’s a small first step that everyone can take. While my financial situation is no more secured than the average person here, I count my blessings every day, knowing that I have a lot more than most people.  I have set foot in some really impoverished parts of the world and was deeply touched by the people’s generosity in sharing—even when they had next to nothing to share. I think every little thing counts and one small act of kindness can have a giant ripple effect.  Margaret Mead was so right to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Let’s be part of it. If we can’t change the world, at least we have tried.  What matters is the journey. If we reach the destination, it’s a bonus.
We don’t have to wait till disaster strikes to wake up to the fact that we need each other. We don’t have to wait till Christmas to help those in need and share the joy of giving.  There is a song that I sang at the Christmas church choir that goes like this :

“Is it better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark ?
Is it better to light just one little candle, all you need is a tiny spark.
If we all say a prayer that the world will be free,
A wonderful dawn of a new day we’ll see.
And if everyone lights just one little candle,
What a bright world it will be.



Gloria Chan is a licensed acupuncturist in NC. She has one clinic in Asheville and one in Hendersonville which use pay-it-forward instead of a fixed fee.  Her website is She recently launched the Asheville Pay It Forward Network on and facebook, and she also runs the Hendersonville-Asheville Body Mind Spirit Book Club. Gloria can be contacted on 828-989-3270 or


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker