Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
On September 8, 2020, the Almeda Drive Fire ignited in southern Oregon. The suspected arson-caused blaze tore through the Jackson County communities of Phoenix and Talent, leveling over 3,000 structures along its path of destruction. Tzu Chi USA volunteers from several regions mobilized to bring relief to families displaced by this disaster and in dire need of aid. Two disaster relief distributions would soon follow in the weeks to come, the first on October 31, the next on November 7.
A Sweet Halloween
October 31 is Halloween in the United States, and according to custom, children will go “trick-or-treating” in their neighborhoods, wearing all kinds of costumes as they knock on doors in the hope of getting “treats,” meaning sweets in most cases. Some of the adults accompanying them dress up as well, yet there would be some unexpected “costumes” visible in one Jackson County town on Halloween 2020, the blue and white uniforms worn by Tzu Chi volunteers.
A team of 27 Tzu Chi volunteers from across three states – Washington, California, and Oregon – had traveled to Medford, a city near the fire-affected area, to provide a disaster relief distribution for Almeda Drive Fire survivors. They distributed a total of $67,200 in cash cards on this day, along with love and care as their sweet Halloween “treats.”
One care recipient remembered some of the volunteers on the team, as she was a prior disaster survivor. Melissa Ward lived in Paradise, California, in 2018, and the Camp Fire had destroyed her home. Tzu Chi USA provided aid following that disaster, and the volunteers’ warmth and concern about each survivor’s wellbeing deeply moved her.
Melissa later moved to Phoenix, Oregon, and suffered through the recent wildfire incident there. She felt very depressed initially but did not give up her faith in the future, which prompted her to reach out to Tzu Chi USA. Through her contact with Tzu Chi volunteers and the Buddhist outlook and wisdom they bring, she felt a sense of renewed hope immediately.
It turns out that behind her misfortune, there was an opportunity to become a liaison of love. Melissa posted messages on Facebook, wrote to the mayor, and more, introducing Tzu Chi USA and its missions and encouraging her fellow disaster survivors to remain strong. Her initiatives helped people trust Tzu Chi USA, an organization they didn’t know previously, and provide personal information to register for aid and follow-up on relief distributions.
This tri-state disaster relief mission, which went on to benefit 126 households on October 31, was only the first for Almeda Drive Fire survivors, as one week later, another distribution would follow, despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
Connecting Heart to Heart
On November 7, Tzu Chi volunteers continued their efforts to serve Almeda Drive Fire survivors. Setting out at 5:00 AM, a team of 11 volunteers would make the 10-hour round trip to Medford in one day, providing their second disaster relief distribution, this one benefiting 42 households. And, as always, every distribution is an opportunity for volunteers and disaster survivors to connect heart to heart.
Patrick came to both distributions and insisted on taking photos with the volunteers on each occasion to express his gratitude. On October 31, he had dressed up nicely to show his respect and became quite emotional as he couldn’t stop crying. Patrick shared that he once took many things for granted, but now they’re out of reach as he can’t even cook a meal at home because he’s left with no home after the fire.
When Patrick was staying at a temporary shelter, he became increasingly depressed day by day. He thanked the Tzu Chi volunteers, who had never met him before the distribution, for extending such genuine warmth to him and all the other survivors, their support of immense help during this taxing post-disaster experience. Although he felt somewhat numb inside, the selfless volunteers touched his heart, and he told them, “you have changed me.”
Patrick insists on taking two photos: The first with Master Cheng Yen’s portrait, in honor of her founding Tzu Chi; the second with smiling eyes of gratitude to all Tzu Chi volunteers. Photos/Wei Wu
Julia Epperson recently suffered the pain of her mother’s passing in addition to the loss of her home in the fire, which made it feel like her life was falling apart. The cash card from Tzu Chi would certainly help materially, yet it was the other ways volunteers conveyed love and care that moved her even more.
The eco-blanket and Jing Si Rice Julia received, with their message of environmental protection and vegetarianism, made an impression, leading her to say she would become a vegetarian to benefit herself and the environment. As Julia hugged the blanket closely, the weight of grief and distress lifting, her body language revealed that she was starting to feel better.
Brianna Iverson rushed in when everyone at the distribution was already packing up to leave. Wearing slippers instead of shoes, evidence of how chaotic her current life situation may be, she hurried over to register for assistance. It turns out that Brianna is currently staying at a friend’s house temporarily, on top of which early that morning, she discovered her car stolen.
As they helped Brianna complete the registration process, Tzu Chi volunteers listened to her story, offering moral support. Her anxiousness settled gradually, and she expressed her gratitude for their attentiveness to her needs. Brianna felt particularly moved by the story of the bamboo bank, which gave her hope as she reflected on how there is love in the world.
The Volunteers Concerted Effort Pays Off in Medford
To successfully execute the two disaster relief operations in Medford, Tzu Chi volunteers worked together for over a month, making complicated preparations that required countless phone calls. A total of 168 households benefited from their concerted efforts. Care recipients received a letter of condolences from Master Cheng Yen, cash card, eco-blanket, scarf, cloth mask sewn by volunteers, Jing Si Rice, a Jing Si Aphorism book in four languages, and a bamboo bank.
Volunteer Wenson Lin said that it was difficult to participate in this mission at the beginning. When taking part in the first distribution on October 31, he recalled that he felt exhausted from driving for nearly five hours to reach Medford. But when making the same trip again on November 7, the distance seemed shorter and less tiring. On the contrary, he felt more energetic and was happy to drive all those miles, knowing the survivors were waiting for help and eager for the team to arrive.
Individual Case Follow-Up Is Part of the Mission
Disaster-stricken households face many challenges along the road to recovery. Some are emotional, as people adjust to a new way of life after losing their homes. For instance, they may be eager to have their own kitchen again, cooking what they like to eat as before, yet a mundane routine like this, easily taken for granted, is now a wish they fear will take a long time to come true.
For others, surmounting the obstacles ahead is more pressing and urgent. With the cold winter season close at hand and temperatures dropping, how can families now camping outdoors survive the winter?
Others still face insurance woes or regrets. They may not have bought insurance because their house was too old, or the premium was too expensive if they lived in one of the high-risk areas, or the insurance company might have rejected their application outright. Sadly, even those who had insurance may not be free and clear of problems as the amount of compensation may be so low that they now can’t afford to buy another house.
To better understand the needs of the survivors in the area, a Tzu Chi call center volunteer coordinated a home visit. Five Tzu Chi volunteers formed an in-depth task team and personally visited Jairo, head of a household that lost their home in the fire. The displaced family of five feels lucky to stay in an RV borrowed from Jairo’s mother-in-law.
The husband and father shared that, “It’s not easy to let go of your pride and accept the help of others.” However, he’s willing to let it go for the benefit of his three lovely children. Volunteer Chinlung Lee, also a father, could empathize with Jairo’s love for his children and willingness to do anything for them.
Anticipating the team’s visit, Jairo prepared a vegetarian breakfast for everyone, kindly remembering that Tzu Chi volunteers maintain a vegetarian diet. The Jairo family was most considerate, showing their hospitality with a meal and their warm, open-hearted attitude. Such beautiful human connections inspire Tzu Chi volunteers to serve people in need, bringing help that will relieve their stress and suffering. Because, indeed, we are just one family in this world