Written by Daphne Liu
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang and Ida Eva Zielinska
In advance of the first Thanksgiving holiday since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, Tzu Chi volunteers in New York began to prepare for a series of winter distributions. The first was their traditional winter clothes distribution, which has a 25-year history.
After volunteers sort and clean the clothes donated by the community, they offer them to those in need, a process filled with love and blessings from start to finish, when care recipients leave wearing the warm gear they had lacked before.
Pre-Owned but Like New
Bags of winter coats were donated by New York residents, reaching more than a hundred collected within the month before Thanksgiving. Taking advantage of the weekend before the holiday, Tzu Chi volunteers hurried to clean and wash all the pre-owned clothes, preparing them for distribution to those in need. Tzu Chi volunteer Terresa Teh explained, “We clean all the clothes before the distribution.”
Although some people will wash, organize, and sort all the clothes at home before donating them, most had made sure to launder the items before giving them away this year due to the pandemic. Still, the volunteers took precautions, carefully checking each piece to ensure the clothes were in the best condition possible, and sending them for cleaning.
A Widow’s Care Brings Relief
One of the bags of clothing was donated by a lady who has been under Tzu Chi’s care as an individual case since volunteers began accompanying her during the difficult period following her husband’s death.
The widow’s decision to donate her husband’s clothes to the community was her way of coping, as through shifting her attention to the needs of others, she found some relief herself. Tzu Chi volunteer Shan Shan Chiang shared, “This way, the individual we help can also come out of grief… I’m really grateful. Knowing that we’re holding a distribution, she delivered them early this morning.”
After sorting the jackets into different categories, the volunteers packed all the clothes into bags for sending to the next stop, one for washing. There, the clothes belonging to the widow’s late husband would join many other donated items prepared for washing by teams of volunteers.
Loads Washed With Love
Volunteers brought the bags of donated winter clothes to a laundromat owned by Lucy Lu, who also happens to be a Tzu Chi volunteer. Since there are more customers during the winter, Lucy washed the winter wear jackets during the business’s off-hours.
To protect the clothes, she first sorted them again according to fabric, explaining as she worked, “This is wool; it will shrink when washed. This can’t be washed here.” Then, for those she could launder, Lucy divided the items by color to avoid washing certain hues together, “The red colors will fade, so we should wash it with the black ones, and the other colors are fine,” and so on.
Lucy has been running the laundromat for eight years already, and it’s open seven days a week, so she doesn’t have much time on her hands. But she utilizes her lunch breaks to volunteer with Tzu Chi. As long as there’s an opportunity to be of service to others, she cherishes it:
It may seem easy to manage Tzu Chi’s winter distributions of clothes, from collecting donated items to sorting, washing, transportation to the site, and finally hosting the event. But behind the whole process, many people’s love and dedication are involved, their priceless efforts having one ultimate goal: To bring care and relief to those in need. Their heartfelt collective aim finally reaches fruition during the distribution.
Final Preparations Are Another Team Effort
After the volunteers had prepared all the donated winter clothes, they were ready for distribution during the Thanksgiving long weekend. And on November 28, Tzu Chi collaborated with All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Manhattan, New York, and prepared to offer the winter wear for those in need alongside the church’s annual Thanksgiving food distribution.
As it happens, All Saints’ Episcopal Church is located directly across the street from the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief on East 60th Street. On this holiday weekend morning, the aroma of food wafted from the Center towards the sidewalk in front of the Church where the event would take place.
Inside the Tzu Chi Center’s kitchen, volunteers were preparing colorful vegetable dishes that would join the offerings of hot food for the homeless and those in need on Thanksgiving this year. Tzu Chi volunteers and senior Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (Tzu Ching) volunteers participated in this venture of love – senior Tzu Ching being college students who already graduated.
Out of respect for the tradition of eating sausages on Thanksgiving, the team of volunteers prepared vegan sausages in addition to the broccoli, corn on the cob, carrots, and other nutritious vegetable dishes they would provide. Once all the food was ready, the volunteers prepared vegetarian bento boxes filled with each tasty dish.
Meanwhile, outside the church across the street, another group of volunteers had hung up the donated winter jackets and coats after sorting them according to gender, size, and type, making it easy for people to select the right one, just like in clothing shops. The volunteers also displayed other items for distribution on tables, including the brand new beanies provided by CAIPA (Coalition of Asian-American IPA), donated by the accessories manufacturers. Finally, everything was ready for the distribution to begin.
Delivering Warmth During Winter
Due to the pandemic, All Saints’ Episcopal Church hosted its annual Thanksgiving food distribution outside this year. However, being outdoors didn’t dampen the holiday atmosphere as one could still hear music emanating from inside the Church. Moreover, all the volunteers attending to the public brought plenty of cheer to every interaction.
Tzu Chi volunteers distributed homemade cakes and cookies they had baked themselves, which brought comfort while people waited their turn to select clothes. Normally, All Saints’ Church would provide hot meals for dining inside but this year this was changed to take-out only, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, the Church began to distribute Tzu Chi’s vegetarian bento boxes.
Tzu Chi volunteers had made 60 lunch boxes for distribution, but actually, 80 people came, so they quickly prepared more food so that everyone who wanted it would obtain a meal. Everybody was glad to get a bite to eat but also couldn’t wait to select their best fitting winter clothes when it was their turn. Volunteers assisted as they tried them on, explaining, “This coat is a blessing from a generous donor… they hope this coat will keep you warm in the winter…”
The volunteers also shared how to wash the coat or jacket the care recipients picked, just like store clerks. As they patiently helped everyone find their favorite item, they would highlight its unique features, too, “You can wear this with the green side out, or vice versa… and you can wash it in the washing machine. It looks good on you!”
Finally, when they heard the response, “This is perfect for me, I like it so much!” the volunteers could feel a sense of peace and accomplishment.
This year, more people than expected came to the distribution since the pandemic’s impact is widespread and has made the lives of many people more difficult. Some care recipients shared their hardships with the volunteers.
Herman pointed at the broken zipper of the jacket he was wearing, which was the only cold-weather clothing he had. After the pandemic began, Herman lost his job and later his unemployment benefits. Now, he comes to the church for a hot meal every Saturday. And winter clothes from Tzu Chi on Thanksgiving were a precious gift that helped relieve his urgent needs this winter.
“Currently, I’m getting a few food stamps and a tiny bit of cash assistance till I find full-time work. But I’m glad there are places like this where they can help people and families.” Herman told the volunteers with gratitude.
A taxi driver who was driving by saw the free distribution and stopped to pick some winter clothes plus food. He even stopped by a second time later, telling the volunteers before leaving, “Thank you very much for helping people like me. May God bless you, your children, and your family.”
A Collaboration That Continues to Blossom
Besides the Thanksgiving event, All Saints’ Episcopal Church provides food every Saturday. People don’t need to show any documents to come and eat or to pick up the take-out food provided instead during the pandemic.
Tzu Chi New York has collaborated with All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Thanksgiving for two years now. They organize and provide winter clothing and hot food distributions together and have evolved from good neighbors to great partners.
The Reverend Dr. Steven Jay Yagerman, Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, has served this church for 28 years and was on hand at the distribution, taking a moment to acknowledge Tzu Chi volunteers’ love and respect for people as well.
And Tzu Chi volunteers were not the only ones serving that day, as people from different ethnic groups and religious beliefs, all sharing the same philosophy of compassion, had all come together to bring support and relief to those in need this Thanksgiving.
Through your generosity in support of Tzu Chi’s charitable missions, you too can be part of such collaborations, bringing tangible relief, such as a warm coat and hot meal on a cold day. Join our circle of compassion in action on behalf of all in need!