SEATTLE -- Her name is Tan Vo, and around Safeco Field, many fans know her simply as the video-camera person who roams the stands and can get their faces up on the big screen. But as Vo knows, there is a story behind every person you run across in this world just waiting to be told.
And as the holiday season approaches and folks gather for Thanksgiving, the story of Tan Vo is well worth hearing.
Life hasn't always been kind to Vo and her family, who fled Vietnam in 1983 and eventually made their way to San Diego, where she and three siblings grew up in a housing project, sleeping on mattresses salvaged from dumpsters and fending their way in a world where her most vivid holiday memories are of her father's alcohol-fueled abuse of their mother.
That was the world Vo vowed to escape. And she has in remarkable fashion, now a 36-year-old video editor for ScreenPlay, Inc., also doing freelance work for the Mariners, Seattle Storm and Washington Huskies at night to earn extra cash.
It's that extra cash that enables Vo to travel the world as frequently as she can, where she shares that spare money and a unique zest for life while often dressed as a cow. Yep, a cow.
The cow suit, a Halloween-type outfit, was given to her by a friend several years ago with the instruction to wear it at times during her travels and take pictures in interesting places. But what started out as a lark turned into something remarkable for Vo, who discovered the cow suit serves as an easy icebreaker for people of all languages and backgrounds.
And once Vo engages in conversation, she's the kind of friendly listener who people latch onto, open up with and share stories and laughs. And Vo loves to share back, whether with words or kindness or money when she can.
Vo definitely isn't a "cash cow" kind of fundraiser for big charities. She does have a Traveling Cow website (http://www.thetravelingcow.com/) and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LeTravelingCow) where she tells her stories and sometimes seeks help for people in need, but hers is a charity from the heart. A cup of coffee for a stranger sitting in the cold, pencils and books for schoolkids in impoverished countries she's visited, or a helping hand for a life she can touch.
Last year, she returned to her native Vietnam with a friend and co-worker, photographer Kathy Stenger, and traveled the back roads, visiting villages and schools and hospitals where two patients were sharing each bed. One young girl's situation moved her to give what money she had in her pocket, then keep in touch through an aunt upon returning to Seattle. When she found out the girl needed a portable oxygen tank to survive, she decided to do whatever it took to raise the $1,000.
"I just said, 'I've got do to something,'" Vo said. "So I put up the first $500 and called all my friends and asked if they'd put in five bucks, their coffee money for a day, so we could come up with $1,000. About 25 of the 30 people that I asked helped. But most said, 'I'm not going to give you $5, I'm going to give you $25 or $50.' One of my co-workers at Safeco Field put up $500. In one day, just me making phone calls and texting a picture of the little girl, I collected $2,200. It wasn't any big fundraiser, it was just asking people to help."
She ended up wiring the $2,200 to the girl's mother, who Vo said works for $30 a month in a neighboring city. The mother was able to buy the oxygen tank and also start a small business selling poultry from her own home so she could stay at her daughter's side.
"Her one wish had been for her mom to be home with her and that broke my heart, because I wish I could have my mom back, too," said Vo, whose mother died about two years ago. "So that's the kind of charity work I do. I don't work with big organizations. Not that I'm against it. I just help where it's needed and where I can."
One of her projects is collecting shoes for Safe Place, a shelter in Everett, Wash., for children taken from homes and awaiting placement in foster care. It's another effort close to her heart, as she remembers her own childhood of uncertainty.
"I did have a hard upbringing," she said. "I grew up in a house of domestic violence. My father beat the crap out of my mother constantly. One day I just realized, I can either continue the cycle or I could break it. My first step was seeking help. In my 20s, I started seeing a therapist and it took me about two years to really open up. But once I did, everything came out and it became easier and easier to heal. I acknowledged there was a wound there, but it made me more determined. I was not going to go back down that route, to live off welfare and the government. I wanted independence, my own house, my own paycheck, a better life."
Vo earned a degree in video production from the Art Institute of Seattle, landed a full-time editing gig at ScreenPlay, Inc., and began her freelancing with the Mariners and other sports teams about seven years ago. She works as a camera operator at every Mariners home game, shooting pregame activities on the field, filming fans in the stands during the game and recording the manager's postgame session with the media.
She owns a house in West Seattle and lives the comfortable life she'd dreamed of as a child. But when her mom died suddenly of a stroke, she went into a deep depression.
"It hit me hard," Vo said. "My dad hasn't been in my life since I was 24. He loves gambling and beer more than his children. So I left the country after we buried my mom. I bought a ticket to Vietnam, where we started, and I sat in dark rooms for about three weeks.
"But then I started riding around the backcountry on a bike. I started meeting people and talking. And I realized I'm not the only person in this world to lose my mother. I met children who lost both parents and didn't have a house to return to. You listen to stories much more tragic than mine. I came home and picked myself up by my shirt and said, 'Knock it off.' So I told my friend, Kathy, I have to do something to continue my mom's legacy. And she said, 'Let's do something with the cow suit.' I love traveling and the cow suit is funny and it's an icebreaker."
She climbed the highest peak in Switzerland and took photos in the suit. She went with Stenger to North Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Mexico. She packed a Felix Hernandez bobblehead to North Korea and took pictures of it under the Peace Arch. She's journeyed across the United States and plans to go to Hawaii next. She's grateful for a job that allows her time to get away about one week every month, and for the freelance work that gives her the finances to make it work.
"I don't go to sightsee or lay by the beach," she said. "I seek out people, I listen and talk to them and hear their stories."
In Laos, she met a hotel owner whose sister owns a restaurant in Wisconsin. After befriending the hotel owner, she stopped at the restaurant during a later trek across the U.S. and instantly recognized the sister by the facial resemblance.
"I just walked in and said, 'I met your sister in Laos," Vo said. "She was shocked. She said, 'Oh my God. You come in. I make soup for you.' We wound up talking for 90 minutes. That's the kind of travel I do. I like to make connections."
In Thailand, she reached out to the owner of an animal sanctuary while wearing the cow suit and the next day found herself and Stenger on a private guided tour that included personal introductions to elephants and tigers.
"We were out in the field and this herd of giant elephants is walking toward us, but they were so gentle," Vo said, amazement still vibrating in her voice. "They played with her. We sat underneath them. Here I am with the owner, sitting under this beast, and she's singing to it and it's purring like a kitten. One of the highlights of my life was having that experience, just meeting the owner and seeing if we could do something like that. If you just ask, 80 percent of the time people will say yes."
Vo acknowledges that she's gotten rude comments and receptions as well, racist comments and insults and people ridiculing a person in a cow suit. She shrugs it off, as she has with her unpleasant past.
"There's no need for negativity," she said.
She prefers to find the good in life and people.
"My favorite place I've been is North Korea," Vo said. "Their dictator is crazy, but the people are beautiful. They're very sweet and kind."
She reaches others through her writing as well, opening herself up in a way she never thought possible.
"One day I wrote about growing up with domestic violence," she recalled. "And the next day, an usher at Safeco Field came up and hugged me and all she said was, 'I didn't know somebody else was going through the same pain.' I knew what she was talking about. You think everyone has a peachy life, but not everything is rosy on the other side. For me, I always thought I was alone when I was a kid. That only my family was dysfunctional, only my dad beat my mom."
For years, that domestic violence made the holiday season rough for Vo. It was during the holidays that her father often drank the most.
"For the longest time, I chose not to engage in Thanksgiving and Christmas because it brought back bad memories," she said. "Holidays are supposed to be about family and loving. I'd never had that. We weren't merry. We weren't filling glasses, we were throwing dishes. But now, I don't feel like an orphan any more. People make sure I'm not alone.
"And that's what I want to do at Safe Place. Those are kids who were like me when I was little. They've been taken out of their homes. I want to get them shoes, help them get a safe place for a night. If I could help one kid who was where I was many years ago, in that painful place, not just in the holidays but any day, if I can help them get through that, I'll do whatever I can."
So that's the story of Tan Vo, a woman who will don a cow suit, lend an ear, extend a hand, raise a little money to help wherever she can to make the world a slightly better place for people who sometimes just need to know somebody cares enough to stop and listen.
"When we came to America, we had nothing but the clothes on our back," she said. "Now I have what I need. I'm not rich, but I'm not poor. I have a comfortable life, a roof over my head, a car to get from point A to point B. After that, I'm willing to take what's left over and help somebody.
"People get overwhelmed by the big picture and feel like they can't do anything to make a difference. But maybe it's just a cup of coffee. Or help a girl buy an oxygen tank. I'm not going to save the world from poverty or cure cancer. That's not my journey. Somebody else is going to do that.
"I don't have to save the world. My approach is, if I can just help this person, that's enough."
Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.