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Living the dream: A journey from Vietnam

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RAYVILLE, La. (KNOE 8 News) - Toni Estis is a busy lady. She runs a muti-million dollar full service construction firm with her husband Sam, and she has three children in grade school: Ethan, Little Sam and Alli. Her oldest, Logan, is in college. But this is far from how her life began in Saigon, Vietnam.

"North Vietnam took over South Vietnam. My father was a physician. After being in their concentration camps for three years he decided there has got to be something better out there. So after three attempts we made it out of Vietnam," Toni said.  

The Phams – Toni, her mother, her father and her sister Loan - made it out by fishing boat to a small island near Malaysia. They waited on the island for 6 months until they were allowed in the states. She said they had the clothes on their back and $10. Her first American meal was bag of Doritos.

"What really opened up my eyes was we had youth groups, we had social workers, we had church groups, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, we had all the people that would show up from time to time with groceries, clothes, toys," Toni said.

Toni says the family learned English, took on American names and moved around the country while her father finished his residency. In Lake Charles, her other sister, Jennifer was born.

Her father finished his residency at E. A. Conway and began his career as an American doctor in the emergency room. Toni and Loan enrolled in Sterlington High School.

"We were not allowed to date. We had to keep our grades up and we weren't allowed to do many extra circular activities. But being typical teenagers, we were very rebellious," Toni said.  

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Toni found out she was pregnant. She and Sam were married, she got her G.E.D., and started school at Northeast Louisiana University, now ULM. Then, with a graduation date in sight, tragedy happened.

"We were going to both be doctors like our dad. Then on Jan. 29, 1995, she was killed in a car accident. She was 21 years old," Toni said about Loan's death.  

Toni says the death of loan devastated her, but with encouragement from her husband, she was able to finish school with a degree in pharmacy. But instead of working as a pharmacist, she decided to go work with her husband. Together they built Southern Industrial Contractors.

The company is licensed in 10 states and she oversees projects that cost upwards of $300 million and creates hundreds of jobs.

Toni credits the help of others and hard work for her success.

"The true blessing, like I said, to me it's the jobs we are able to create," Toni said.  

Toni said her life is far from perfect. She said it's hard to balance her hectic schedule. And she's has made plenty of mistakes.

"You just keep working hard and putting one foot in front of the other. You will climb out of it," Toni said.

Even though it's not possible, Toni said she makes every effort to get home to her kids every night.

She said at the end of the day, it's about the example she sets for her kids. She said she wants to make sure they know, success comes with a lot of hard work.

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