Aromatic Relief: Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region Responds to the Pajaro Flood

Northwest  |  June 15, 2023
Tzu Chi Northwest Region held a different kind of distribution for the survivors.
With the fragrance of flowers and the elegance of tea, Tzu Chi Northwest Region held a different kind of distribution for the survivors. Photo/Andy Chiang

Written by Rachel Lin, PJ Tan, Li San Hor, Ping Yao Lee
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Andrea Barkley

In early March 2023, the third atmospheric river of the year drenched Northern California, causing rivers to overflow their banks and flood the Pajaro community. Pajaro, meaning “bird” in Spanish, had been badly hit, with significant road damage, submerged homes, and the residents facing challenging conditions. This flood has clipped the neighborhood’s metaphorical wings, making it hard for them to soar above the crisis.

Volunteers carefully setting up the site
Volunteers carefully set up the site to provide a unique experience for survivors in the predominantly Spanish-speaking community. Photo/Andy Chiang

Tea and Empathy: A Unique Approach to Disaster Relief

In the wake of the flooding, Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers immediately leaped into action, distributing supplies in a decentralized manner due to the scarcity of suitable distribution sites. As they grappled with the logistical challenge of servicing survivors awaiting aid, the volunteers noticed a Hampton Inn just across the street from a Starbucks coffee shop.

The inn’s spacious and inviting interior sparked an innovative idea. The volunteers decided to utilize the space for a unique aid distribution, transforming it into a welcoming tea party. “We wanted to create a distinguished distribution process where the survivors are treated like VIPs. We hope that through such an approach, they could genuinely feel the care and respect Tzu Chi volunteers have for them,” said Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region Executive Director, Minjhing Hsieh. “In this setup, our volunteers can engage more personally with the survivors, and also help them better understand the core culture and values of Tzu Chi.”

On April 23, survivors were guided to a serene tea ceremony area post-registration, where they could unwind and enjoy a relaxing cup of tea amidst the calming ambiance of floral arrangements. Subsequently, care recipients were led to the meeting hall to receive cash value cards. The journey continued, as survivors were then escorted to an exhibition area where volunteers shared the origin and philosophy of Tzu Chi.

The event seamlessly incorporated the symbolic Tzu Chi bamboo bank, the concept of environmental conservation, and the promotion of vegetarianism into the distribution process, offering survivors an enriching experience. Lastly, as the event came to a close, care recipients were offered a scrumptious veggie burger and a carnation, conveying good wishes and a volunteer’s tribute to Mother’s Day as they exited the hotel.

Volunteers present blankets to flood survivors.
Volunteers present blankets to flood survivors. Photo/Andy Chiang
Volunteers distribute relief to survivors and introduce Tzu Chi's missions.
Volunteers distribute relief to survivors and introduce Tzu Chi's missions. Photo/Andy Chiang

Down-to-Earth Acts of Love

The floods decimated Maria Baez’s home and ruined all her furniture. When she ventured back two weeks later, she was met with walls infested with mold, rendering her home uninhabitable. Earlier, Tzu Chi Northwest volunteers had left a leaflet on her door, providing her an opportunity to attend their aid distribution.

As she waited, the tea ceremony team volunteers served her hot tea and a piece of cake. Excited, she snapped a picture with her phone and sent it to her sister, thrilled at such an experience from a charity she had never before encountered. In response to her text message, her sister expressed amazement. The kind gestures and warmth of the volunteers prompted her to fill out a volunteer enrollment form without a second thought after receiving her cash card. She resolved to join Tzu Chi in aiding her family, friends, and neighbors in the community.

Teresa Lee, a vibrant and generous individual with a heart full of empathy, had driven over two hours from Richmond to assist Maria upon hearing about the damage to her home. Maria invited her to help with Spanish translation. With a keen interest in Chinese culture, she was also curious about Tzu Chi. When the volunteers offered Teresa a taste of their tea, she was delighted, expressing, “This tea smells so good!” She and Maria both filled out volunteer enrollment forms at the distribution site, ready to join the collective effort to help others.

Volunteers explaining the cultural core of Tzu Chi to the survivors
Volunteers explain the cultural core of Tzu Chi to the survivors and encourage them to accumulate kindness with bamboo banks. Photo/Andy Chiang
survivors and Tzu Chi volunteers embrace each other with affection
Deeply moved survivors and Tzu Chi volunteers embrace each other with affection. Photo/Andy Chiang

A Beacon of Communication Amidst Disaster

Many times when tragedies strike, overcoming barriers in language can be deeply frightening for survivors seeking relief. Emma Ong, a young Tzu Chi volunteer who studied Spanish from elementary school through college and participated in Tzu Chi USA activities with her mother since childhood, stepped up to this challenge. In this event, she served as a translator, eloquently explaining the mission of Tzu Chi to the survivors in fluent Spanish.

One such care recipient was Alfredo Amnbula, a non-English speaker who arrived leaning on a cane. It was through Emma Ong’s translation that the volunteers understood Alfredo’s circumstances. He had recently undergone knee surgery and was still in recovery. The terrifying memory of the river flooding his home brought on a cold sweat each time he recalled the incident. Through these exchanges, Emma found a sense of fulfillment in using her Spanish language skills to assist the survivors.

I am happy to let the survivors know that someone can understand their language, share their stories, and convey their gratitude to Tzu Chi through my translation.

Bridget Smith, the hotel manager, was engrossed in capturing images of the tea party setup, the floral arrangements, and the on-site decor via her cell phone. Even though it was her first encounter with Tzu Chi USA, she was deeply moved by their genuine care and compassion toward the survivors.

The serene and beautiful tea ceremony setup was the handiwork of volunteer Chen Jiaxing. “I always imagined tea tasting occurring in a more secluded and quiet space, so preparing Jing Si tea in a hotel was beyond my expectations,” she shared. “I’m grateful that all the tea ceremony team volunteers readily embraced the challenge and served the survivors with cups of honey-scented black tea. This allowed them to taste a heartfelt message while waiting.”

Finding a venue had been fraught with challenges due to the extensive damage in the neighborhood and the many survivors requiring aid. Despite these hurdles, the unique and creative approach of the distribution event resulted in a uniquely meaningful outcome. Thanks to the collective efforts of 31 volunteers, a total of $29,900 in cash cards was distributed to 195 survivors.

This successful alternative distribution demonstrated the heartfelt connection among all involved and allowed Tzu Chi Northwest’s love to flow freely. Volunteers often face obstacles during the preparation of disaster relief distributions, but witnessing more and more people being inspired to care for others and help their communities through these acts of volunteering stands among the most rewarding moments. 

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