Written and translated by Audrey Cheng
Photos provided by Jenyffer Ruiz
It was peaceful in Ecuador on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, where all four seasons seemed to speak of spring. In front of each house, there stood a lovely tree from which one could hang a hammock to relax in the shade. Tourists frequented bustling markets, perusing the souvenir shops, and brought business to the local hotels and motels.
Cherishing the picturesque scenes with friends and family, Ecuadorians hoped they might enjoy such a life for many more years to come. Tragically, however, Ecuador was struck by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April of 2016, taking the lives of hundreds, and leaving thousands more injured and homeless. The quake had rocked the coast of Ecuador suddenly and violently, waking more than 200,000 from their sleep. It destroyed homes, businesses, and the symbolic heart of Canoa — the Church of San Andres.
Tzu Chi volunteers speedily mobilized to provide their aid, initiated a Cash-for-Relief program to give locals the means to clean up their cities in the shortest time possible while also earning money to feed their families.
When a flood struck Ecuador the following year, Tzu Chi revisited the country for aid, and launched the Cash-for-Relief program once more, restoring the people’s vitality, and setting in motion long-term plans to rebuild the destroyed house of worship in Canoa.
Accompanying the team of Tzu Chi volunteers on both missions was a local volunteer: Jenyffer Ruiz.
Jenyffer was born into a Catholic family in Ecuador. When she was 15 years old, she and her family moved to New York. In College, she majored in Education and Speech-Language Pathology, and worked for the Department of Education in New York City for 11 years. She is a member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which provides speech and language therapy for children with autism. She always believed that she would return to Ecuador, and in 2015, after 23 years, she did just that. She was unsure of what she really wanted to do at that point or where the journey would take her, but it wasn’t long, however, before one encounter would change her life forever.
Rendering Aid With Love
A few days after the 2016 earthquake, Jenyffer had received an email from a friend telling her that Tzu Chi volunteers were coming to begin earthquake disaster relief, and asked if Jenyffer would be willing to help. She said “Yes,” without hesitation. “I’m going. I will do my best to help Tzu Chi.”
Jenyffer Ruiz learned the story behind the bamboo bank for the first time when Tzu Chi volunteers from seven countries flew to Ecuador to conduct an international relief assessment in Santa Ana and Portoviejo. The Cash-for-Relief program had since launched, and Buddhists and local Catholics alike worked in unison to lead residents on the journey to revitalize their cities.
As Tzu Chi provided their much-needed services in Ecuador, Jenyffer was not only a translator, but also a volunteer, herself, providing a variety of services to help survivors. A goal from her childhood had been realized as she tended to those in need, and saw hope return in their eyes. Jenyffer was glad to move back to her hometown, and had discovered a deep sense of purpose driven by great love.
Jenyffer and Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Having converted from Catholicism to Buddhism in 2006, Jenyffer took refuge in her Bodhisattva vows, and studied Buddhism for nine years.
Accompanied by Tzu Chi USA volunteers, George Chang and Martin Keh, Jenyffer had asked if she could meet Dharma Master Cheng Yen someday, and in November of 2016, Jenyffer was invited to visit Taiwan.
Jenyffer had been looking for the right Dharma Master to follow, so when Jenyffer met Dharma Master Cheng Yen and learned about her life, she immediately realized that she’d found exactly who she’d been searching for. It was an unforgettable experience.
She told Dharma Master Cheng Yen of how she’d traveled from thousands of miles away, and about the suffering she witnessed all over the world. Jenyffer beseeched Master Cheng Yen to allow her to take refuge with her.
Master Cheng Yen replied kindly that there would only be one condition: that Jenyffer became a Tzu Chi volunteer, and take the Master’s heart as her own heart. Master Cheng Yen asked Jenyffer to take the spirit of Tzu Chi with her when she returned to Ecuador, so that she could help the people there with the utmost compassion.
She visited Taiwan a second time in June of 2017 and participated in the 4-in-1 training camp. At this camp, she was inspired by stories told by volunteers from around the world who had gathered in Taiwan. She was especially moved by the experiences of volunteers from Africa, who, with very little and sometimes absolutely no financial resources, had been able to accomplish so much. They were dedicated to bringing relief to people in pain.
She was also in awe of the volunteers who took care of her and the other volunteers at the camp, especially the doctors. She didn’t know most of them, but they knew her name and were genuinely happy to serve. The Tzu Chi Sangha was indeed a space where Jenyffer felt truly supported and appreciated. Master Cheng Yen’s life and her determination to make every moment count inspired Jenyffer to follow the Bodhisattva path.
Her home had been spared by the earthquake a year earlier, but during the April 2017 flood in Ecuador, floodwaters came raging through Jenyffer’s front door.
That was also when Jenyffer received a call from a Martin Keh, a Tzu Chi volunteer who was in Taiwan at the time. He asked Jenyffer if she could conduct a disaster assessment. Ignoring the growing hole in the front of her house, she said “Yes, I will go. No matter how hard it is, I will do it.” Wearing her grey shirt and white pants, she stepped out into the mud.
Jenyffer was very concerned, however. She was no one of any great importance in Ecuador. What would local government officials think about her actions? Would survivors of the flood allow her to enter their homes for assessment? She reminded herself that during the earthquake of 2016, Tzu Chi volunteers were in the same position. The volunteers did whatever was necessary, and successfully completed their disaster relief. Feeling encouraged, Jenyffer invited Boris Garcia, who had taken part in the Cash-for-Relief program the year before, to assist her with her project. All the information they gathered was sent back to Tzu Chi USA.
The information collected was far from enough, she knew, so day after day, Jenyffer put on her white pants and shoes and slogged through the mud. The situation did not improve, and Jenyffer was deeply affected by the people’s tears and sense of helplessness. Jenyffer contacted Martin Keh again and asked “When are you coming? I can’t take it anymore!”
Dharma Master Cheng Yen was worried about the hardships of the Ecuadorian people, and Martin Keh could stay in Taiwan no longer. He immediately invited volunteers from the United States, Canada, and Argentina, to rush to Ecuador.
When Tzu Chi launched the Cash-for-Relief program to clean away the debris and assist in the church reconstruction, hundreds of locals got involved.
Jenyffer in Mexico and Writing a New Chapter in Ecuador
In October of 2017, after an earthquake devastated several cities in Mexico, Jenyffer again helped as a translator, and found herself leading the morning introductions during her relief work. Slowly, she began to understand Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s intentions and her spirit. Having seen so much suffering and hatred in the world, Jenyffer always knew that there was a need for people with compassion. It was not difficult to commit to being a volunteer; being part of a loving family that gives without asking for anything in return was a dream come true.
At a Tzu Chi Medical Association (TIMA) event in Mexico, Jenyffer was assigned to the Activity Team. She was happy to see so many different professionals helping people, and wished the same could be done in Ecuador. Thus, she approached Dr. William Keh, the CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Association USA.
“The earthquake in Ecuador happened before the earthquake in Mexico… Why did TIMA hold an outreach in Mexico, but not in Ecuador?” asked Jenyffer.
Dr. Keh readily replied: “If there is a local team supporting such an arrangement, TIMA would be able to go.”
Jenyffer took on this assignment, eager to make it happen. After talking to TIMA leaders, Jenyffer and local volunteers organized a six-day event in Ecuador. The outreach benefited thousands of people, and moved the hearts of the volunteers who took part. More volunteers have become dedicated to changing their communities and furthering charitable missions.
Jenyffer is thankful to TIMA volunteers for bringing hope and good health to countless communities around the world, and has vowed to continue to support TIMA’s work in Ecuador.
Jenyffer expressed that it is of the utmost importance for her to assist in bolstering Tzu Chi’s work in Ecuador. Jenyffer aspires to foster generosity, open-mindedness, forgiveness, and loving-kindness in the hearts of all those she meets.