Austin Volunteers Come to the Aid of Tornado-Impacted Families

Southern  |  May 9, 2022
Volunteer Zhigang Zhang explains that while a Tzu Chi bamboo bank is small, it contains an ocean of love from people worldwide who wish to help those impacted by disasters, such as this tornado survivor and her family in Texas. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Written by Fangwen Huang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

At least ten tornadoes occurred in Central and Northern Texas during a severe storm on the evening of March 21, 2022, gravely damaging buildings in some areas. A tornado hit Williamson County that night, wreaking havoc in cities including Round Rock, Hutto, and Taylor. According to Texas news reports, the storm impacted 450 homes in the County; nearly 150 were destroyed or severely damaged.

On March 24, volunteers from the Austin Service Center of Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region drove to the hardest-hit city, Round Rock, to investigate the scale of the disaster. They visited the homes of those impacted and learned about the damages incurred. Tzu Chi then invited other local relief and nonprofit resource organizations to conduct two disaster aid distributions of emergency supplies, including a $1,000 cash card from Tzu Chi USA for each household. 

The first distribution was held at the United Heritage Center in Round Rock for two consecutive days starting March 25. On March 31, the second distribution took place at Williamson County Expo Center in Tyler, about 55 kilometers north of Austin. Various organizations once again collaborated in providing emergency relief to disaster-stricken households.

Volunteer Mingyu Chen introduces the missions and gives out Tzu Chi USA Journal magazines to the staff at the distribution site who want to know more about Tzu Chi. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Leaving No One Behind

The sudden tornado not only destroyed their homes but also damaged the means of transportation for many, so some affected households could not participate in the first distribution at all. Considering this, Tzu Chi volunteers made phone calls so that every affected family could get help; Selena River’s household was one of them.

When the tornado came, my husband was holding our three-month-old baby, and our whole family hid in the closet, terrified. It was horrible.

The River’s house was damaged to near destruction by the tornado. Although Selena knew that Tzu Chi would distribute emergency aid on March 25 and 26, she couldn’t come to collect a cash card. Following up on the family’s situation, volunteer Tsangbin Wen reached out and encouraged them to attend the subsequent relief distribution on March 31.

Selena River, whose home was nearly destroyed by the tornado, brings her baby to the disaster relief distribution, where she receives a cash card. Photo/Pei Chi Tse

Because of the lack of transportation, Heath Boral also couldn’t come to the first distribution in Round Rock, but when he arrived at the second in Taylor and learned the amount of aid he would receive, he couldn’t believe it. And he wasn’t the only one.

When Heath Boral learns that the relief fund from Tzu Chi is $1,000, he hugs a volunteer to express his thanks. Photo/Ziluan Cai

Tears of Relief

When Tzu Chi volunteers came to assess the disaster zone, Heath Boral showed them scenes he captured with his mobile phone during the tornado and the subsequent wreckage caused by the catastrophic event. His house was nearly in shambles, and the interior was a mess.

When the tornado hit, our whole family hid in the storage cabinet under the stairs; fortunately, the whole family was safe and did not suffer any harm.

Heath Boral shows photos taken after the tornado with a Tzu Chi volunteer. His home’s structure is in danger, no one can enter, and the interior is a mess. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Since Heath’s house had been certified as hazardous, no one was allowed in and out, and the family had no choice but to seek shelter in a hotel temporarily. When he heard that the relief sum was as high as $1,000, Heath was too stunned to speak, his mouth agape. It took him a few seconds to react. His eyes turned red and swelled with tears, but his face revealed a smile, and he proceeded to hug one of the volunteers to express his gratitude.

Learning the story of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks, which volunteer Tsangbin Wen told him about, Heath was inspired to join the cycle of love and care so that others may feel as relieved receiving help after a disaster turns their life upside down.

Connecting Heart to Heart

Lanxa Alonso (second right) adores Tzu Chi's eco-blankets and appreciates the translation help she receives since she doesn't speak English. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Lanxa Alonso, who is Hispanic, doesn’t speak English and had to rely on volunteer translators to assist with communications when she came to one of the disaster relief distributions. At first, she looked forlorn but then burst into tears when she learned that the cash cards were worth $1,000. Volunteer Pei Chi Tse immediately hugged her while onlooking volunteer translators also had tears in their eyes. “You are all kind souls,” Lanxa exclaimed with heartfelt sincerity.

Lanxa Alonso is emotional upon learning the value of the cash card from Tzu Chi. Photo/Fangwen Huang

The home of Calvin Tchuente was hit hard by the tornado, with walls and the roof blown away by strong winds. He kept repeating, “God bless you,” when receiving a cash card, saying it over ten times. Calvin is African-American and Christian, and when the volunteers talked about Tzu Chi’s aid in Africa, aiming to convey that compassion and open-mindedness are present in both Christianity and Buddhism, it was a message he understood deeply.

Love is not bound by religion, race, and color. Your Master is the Venerable Master [Cheng Yen], and my Master is God. We’re like a tree: We may have different branches, but it comes from the same tree and the same root.

Talking to volunteers, Calvin Tchuente, whose house was severely damaged by the tornado, discovers a connection between Christian and Buddhist values. Photo/Ziluan Cai

Sharing the Tzu Chi Spirit

At the distributions, Tzu Chi volunteers were also happy to seize the opportunity to share Tzu Chi’s missions and philosophy with volunteers from other organizations. Tim, a medical consultation unit volunteer, met Tzu Chi volunteers at the previous distribution event. Since then, he had not only learned more about Tzu Chi’s environmental protection mission but also embraced it personally. 

This time, he came to the Tzu Chi station to borrow some eco-blankets so his three companions could experience how soft and warm to the touch they were while also safeguarding the environment since they are made from recycled plastic bottles. The three then learned more about Tzu Chi from volunteer Fangwen Huang. 

Volunteer Fangwen Huang introduces Tzu Chi's missions, including environmental protection, to Tim's three companions. Photo/Shujin Li

Beyond the missions, Tzu Chi volunteer Fangwen Huang explained Tzu Chi’s Bamboo Bank Spirit, DaAi Compassionate Technology, and Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms, all central to Tzu Chi’s work and Buddhist philosophy. And for Tim, this was also an opportunity to bring back a bamboo bank he had filled since the first distribution.

Red Cross volunteer Gail Hassell is a retired teacher. She shared her service experience in the local community with Tzu Chi volunteers and made a donation on the spot to express her appreciation and recognition of Tzu Chi’s global activities.

Retired teacher Gail and a Tzu Chi volunteer exchange their experience in community service. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Ten Tzu Chi volunteers participated in the second event and distributed a cash card and eco-blankets to eight households affected by the recent tornado. This time, the distribution site was in a relatively remote area, yet information about the event had been shared on local TV, radio, and other media in the disaster area. Nonetheless, the number of affected families who came to seek assistance was far less than expected. 

Still, the volunteers were glad they could wholeheartedly assist the families that did come, setting them on the road to recovery with care. Tzu Chi USA can do even more with your support, and our volunteers will bring your love directly to those in need nationwide.

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