Relief in Every Form: Tzu Chi Midwest Treks to Eastern Kentucky to Mend the Hearts of Flood Survivors

Midwest  |  November 9, 2022
While distributing supplies, Tzu Chi volunteers comforted recipients’ hearts. Photo / Bainian Ju

Written by Jin Chen
Edited by Jiali Liu and Maggie Morgan
Translated by Ariel Chan

On September 3, 2022, three people were seen taking in the crisp, fall day. An elderly couple sat on a bench with their daughter-in-law, right outside Sebastian Elementary School in Jackson, Kentucky. The joyful sunlight was a stark contrast to their seemingly solemn expressions. The threesome had just lost an integral part of their lives, a part of their heart, Tony Calhoun.

Natural Disasters Take Homes and Hope

An unprecedented flood demolished parts of Eastern Kentucky on July 26, 2022. Tony Calhoun and his parents, Lowell and Betty, were among those affected, and Tony suffered a particularly severe loss. Tony had already dealt with a flood a year prior, with water pooling merely an inch short of entering his home. He had no choice but to replace some of the soaked insulation in the house but was grateful it hadn’t been worse. Tony had expressed his worry about another flood and had a hard time imagining how he would face it. 

Unfortunately, Tony had predicted the grim future just 16 short months later. His home was flooded once again, but this time the water swallowed it whole. Tony’s house and belongings were completely destroyed, including his collection of memorabilia he had been accumulating since the age of five.

Although Tony survived the onset of the natural disaster, he ultimately became the 39th victim of the chaos. Ten days after the flood, Tony took his own life. Tony’s departure was what inspired three of his loved ones to participate in Tzu Chi’s distribution at Sebastian Primary School on September 3. During the event, Tony’s parents, Lowell and Betty, and his fiancee, Edith, witnessed the authentic love of the volunteers. Working through their grief, the three shared heartfelt nostalgia, telling stories of Tony’s life in an interview. The team was both honored and moved, listening quietly as they offered their hearts.

Volunteers move the distribution materials to the site in an orderly manner. Photo / Bainian Ju

The lack of uniforms in stock in many stores made a common task difficult. School stores had been open for more than a month and had yet to replenish their supplies. Volunteers spent many days visiting seven or eight stores in several cities and also tried online shopping. Finally, after many attempts, they found uniforms for boys and girls to accommodate their varying ages and sizes.

On October 22, 2022, after volunteers distributed fruits and vegetables in the parking lot of Gage Middle School, they went to the outdoor dining area to distribute uniforms. Each student received two sets of uniforms, a coat, a bag of personal protective equipment, and a gift box carefully packaged by Tzu Chi USA youth volunteers.

Altruism: A.S.A.P.

The natural disaster’s death toll reached 39 in total and displaced hundreds of people in its aftermath. Things that weren’t destroyed were still unsalvageable due to mold and debris. The state of impacted communities made it clear there was an urgent need for material support, but spiritual comfort proved to be just as essential.

Tzu Chi Midwest was the closest branch to the disaster area. Though it is an eight-hour drive, the distance wasn’t even a factor; our teams would be there as soon as possible. In recent years, natural disasters have continued to plague the planet; the UN reports that climate change is continuing to fuel their occurrence. The U.S. alone has seen the annual average of natural disasters quadruple since 1980. Our teams across the country, and throughout the world, have adapted to the influx of emergencies. Together, we’ve accumulated invaluable experience in disaster detection and relief.

 Kentucky’s July flood was no different, and volunteers mobilized immediately. Tzu Chi Midwest CEO Chong Hsieh, Deputy CEOs Amy Hsieh, Qingxiong Lin, volunteer Yue Ma, joined by nearby volunteer Guocheng Lin from Dayton, Columbus volunteer Dehong Li, and Cincinnati volunteer Rongchang Chen formed a team of seven to lead the effort at the disaster area.

The volunteers worked swiftly in the heavy rain. They spent two days surveying the devastated communities. Teams took the time to learn survivors’ situations and needs to begin scheduling a follow-up distribution.

Digital Training Prepares Teams

While teams were surveying the area, and arranging relief efforts, Tzu Chi Chicago Office was simultaneously recruiting volunteers from all over the Midwest. Several conversations led to the decided-on dates of September 3-4 to be held in two of the hardest-hit towns: Jackson and Hazard. Teams on the ground gathered the necessary resources to plan for additional volunteers to come to assist with the event. Accommodations were put in place and food and lodging had been checked off the to-do list.

Many volunteers at the September distribution hailed from Chicago and 14 seats were filled up immediately. Columbus, Ohio, Dayton, Ohio, and Cincinnati, Oh were slightly closer to the disaster area, but still required a 3-5 hours drive. Humanitarians traveled to Kentucky from Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, Ohio as well as Detroit, Michigan. A total of 47 people chose to set aside their family and work affairs to be on standby. 

By an unbelievable twist of fate, Professor Chang-Yang Lin from the University of Kentucky is a senior volunteer of Tzu Chi Dayton and leader Guocheng Lin. Professor Lin and his wife, Shun Qi, live in close proximity to the site. Joining the ranks were a Ph.D. student, Ethan, and Justin, the brother of his classmate at the University of Cincinnati. Everyone was coming together under Tzu Chi’s wide-reaching umbrella of compassion.

Teams were forming and preparations were falling into place, but there was still much to be done. Around 7 p.m. on August 31, 2022, the branch held a pre-departure training online. All 47 do-gooders listened intently to the videos edited by volunteer Yue Ma. The presentation included footage from previous distributions and Huishan Qiu, the deputy executive of the branch, explained the process each step of the way. 

Each participant had the opportunity to introduce themselves and get to know who they’d be working alongside. Branch executives Chong Hsieh and Amy Hsieh urged volunteers to be careful and keep safety at the forefront of their minds. The mission was clear: stay strong, remain vigilant, and show the Tzu Chi’s inherent harmony, love, and care.

Volunteers entered the venue in an orderly manner with the Venerable Master. Photo / Bainian Ju

Volunteering Over Taking Vacation

The day to pack up and travel had finally arrived. On Friday, September 2, teams from across the Midwest geared up for a weekend of healing others. A few days prior, volunteers had already started to prepare materials and load them into vehicles. Among the supplies were: eco-blankets, Bamboo Banks, audio and computer equipment, display stands, and gift bags. Volunteers asked for leave from work and were able to end the day early. Right before departure, everyone made sure to use an antigen to self-test for COVID. Once the negative results were in, it was time to set sail.

The first stop was the local Service Center to pay homage to Buddha. After filling themselves with joy and gratitude, everyone hurried off to settle into their weekend home at Staybridge Suites in Lexington, Kentucky. At every relief event, Tzu Chi volunteers are fully responsible for their own expenses. Their selfless dedication makes the act of service even more virtuous and admirable. This protocol allows all donations to help those in need, a testament to Tzu Chi’s mission to end suffering for all living beings.

Deputy CEO Huishan Qiu explained the distribution process to the survivors and played a video introducing Tzu Chi.. Photo / Bainian Ju
Tzu Chi volunteers distributed supplies to the survivors, and the distribution site was busy but not chaotic. Photo / Bainian Ju

Site Number One Spreads Love

Volunteers were up before dawn on the first day of the weekend event. After confirming negative on their coronavirus tests, everyone gathered in the meeting room of the Staybridge Suites. Many members of the team hadn’t seen each other for years; everyone took time to reunite and catch up. Everyone went over their tasks and assignments over breakfast, ensuring everything was in order for the busy day ahead. 

The crew of over 40 volunteers took a caravan of ten vehicles to the site – each one filled to the brim with equipment and supplies for distribution. As the teams traversed across windy mountains and took in the breathtaking scenery, it was hard to imagine that the same place had just withstood massive destruction. The hour-and-a-half drive put the volunteers at Sebastian Elementary School shortly after 8 a.m.; when they arrived they were excitedly greeted there by people already waiting in line. 

Staff members from the Red Cross had also pulled up to the site, ready to help in any way they could. Like a well-oiled machine, volunteers began transporting items from the vehicles into the school, setting up and organizing for what was sure to be an industrious day. Banners were hung to decorate the space and spread awareness of Tzu Chi’s mission: “Buddhist Tzu Chi Midwest” graced the gymnasium’s walls. Tables and chairs were in place. Supplies and cash cards were ready to be received. Everything was where it should be, now it was time to open the doors and give love.

Many first-time volunteers were busy with senior volunteers and quickly became acquainted with the tasks. Soon, every area was set up according to the distribution process protocols. The venue was neatly and arranged to create a humanistic atmosphere.

The Red Cross provided the recipient list and Tzu Chi volunteers took the lead on checking names and confirming donations were used where they were needed most. The survivors who came to the distribution event were severely affected by the floods and many of their homes were completely ravaged. Tzu Chi had made contact with recipients in advance, directing them to come to Sebastian Elementary School from 9 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in order to collect cash cards and supplies. A high volume of people came early to hold their spot in line, even before the event officially started. 

When 9 a.m. rolled around, volunteers ushered recipients inside and helped them fill out the necessary paperwork. While they were waiting, survivors were able to watch a Tzu Chi disaster relief message broadcast on the screen, giving them a first-hand look at what the organization is all about. The media clips held touching scenes of relief efforts after the severe tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky last December. People were focused on the footage and visibly moved by the work of Tzu Chi. 

The gymnasium had filled up, and it was time for the branch Vice President Huishan Qiu to go over the distribution process and  introduce Tzu Chi to everyone in attendance. Many people who came for relief items weren’t familiar with the organization, so it was important to give them a background on the global charity that so deeply wanted to connect with them. Dayton Volunteer Audrey Lin read Master Cheng Yen’s letter of condolences, and even safety masks couldn’t hide the teary eyes in the audience. Chicago Tzu Chi volunteer Annie Chow outlined the distribution supplies for the flood survivors: cash cards worth $600 or $800 (dependent on family size), gift bags, and eco-blankets. The bags contained the Master’s letter, Tzu Chi English periodicals, flashlights, and eco-scarves. Teams work hard to take survivors’ struggles into account to provide purposeful, lasting relief with love.

Tzu Chi volunteers distributed specially prepared condolence packs to the survivors. Photo / Bainian Ju
Volunteers introduced Tzu Chi stories to the recipients and spread the organization’s spirit of love. Photo / Bainian Ju

Soothing the Mind, Body, and Soul

Though the looming pandemic made hugs few and far between, love prevailed with warm eyes, sincere listening, and caring words. Nancy Herald, a recipient, was deeply touched by the news of the event and she shared her experience.

I received [Tzu Chi’s] phone message and had never heard of the organization, and I was a little skeptical at first. A friend of mine also received the message, so we checked online and found what [Tzu Chi] is doing around the world and decided to come. When we saw the Red Cross signs and recognized some locals, we knew it was going to be a great event. I'm especially grateful for [Tzu Chi’s] programs and videos; the conversations I had with volunteers were so encouraging, kind, understanding, empathetic, and comforting. I can't think of more adjectives to describe them. Many people assumed we had only suffered financial losses, but we were also deeply traumatized. I am especially grateful for the cash cards and eco-blankets. Equally important is the love. Every volunteer said they were here because of compassion for others! It's been a very positive and rewarding experience for me. One question on the form you sent was: ‘Do you want to be a volunteer?’ and I hope I can! I am honored to have received your love!

The volunteers always take the time to share Tzu Chi’s story of the Bamboo Bank and give insight into how the eco-blankets are made. It’s the little details that make the global organization what it is, inspiring others to give back to the greater good. Most times, recipients are so moved by the mission that some even put money into the Bamboo Bank to pay the kindness forward.

Darnell Ramirez, an 81-year-old grandmother, said to volunteers: “The flood happened at 4 a.m., my husband and I desperately fled to the top of the mountain to stay safe. But our house was destroyed, and everything is gone. We have lost everything; we can only depend on each other. I came here today and got to know Tzu Chi, which is the will of God. I received a $600 cash card, eco-blankets, and other supplies. More important than that, I received spiritual comfort. When we get back to normal, I will donate to Tzu Chi as I have given to many other groups.”

Tzu Chi is helping people all over the world, and I have to do my part. I think this is a mission given to me by God, and I want more people to know what Tzu Chi is doing.

Bobby Barnett, a flood survivor, was accompanied by his sister who lives in Florida. When the disaster hit, Bobby’s sister immediately drove 13 hours to help her family. Their home was completely ruined, so she drove back to Florida to gather essentials and hit the road back to Kentucky. Bobby’s sister couldn’t believe the relief offered by Tzu Chi and said, “At first I cried because of my family, because my brother and mother lost everything, and later I was moved to tears because I saw the kindness of all volunteers. We are so grateful for what everyone has done. I know you understand what we’ve been through, and you understand the hardships this community is going through. We lost everything except the clothes we were wearing. Every penny you donated will help. We are strong and we must continue to be brave. We thank you so much.”

After the distribution, all the volunteers took a group photo with the staff of Red Cross. Photo / Bainian Ju

A Happy Highlight Reel

When 4 p.m. rolled around and the event was coming to a close, volunteers took a group photo with the staff of the Red Cross. Both teams worked diligently like little ants, breaking down the area as quickly as it was assembled. The day had held so much love and fellowship. It was time to continue and celebrate their success with dinner back at the Staybridge Suites. 

The team decided to meet in the conference room to discuss the day’s highlights. Volunteer Dennis Lee from Chicago showed the photos taken at the event. It was incredible for each person to see their work come to fruition, everyone felt a sense of altruistic achievement. It was especially meaningful to witness the photographs documenting interactions between the volunteers and recipients.

Everyone took turns sharing their feelings about the event. Volunteers had full hearts; in giving they learn, witness compassion, let go of self, realize value, and reap joy. Sharing is a fundamental human instinct that we forget too often, it helps bring us together and solidify our bonds. It’s one thing to inspire others, but the act of volunteering can inspire the self. 

Team members felt that they were the ones who gained the most, who found nourishment for their souls and connect with their fellow humans. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event for us to pull together and realize what matters most. Even through loss, there is much to learn and love to give.

Volunteers started the second distribution at Hazard High School, which started with a Tzu Chi video for the survivors. Photo / Bainian Ju

Day Two of Do-Gooding

The next day of distribution events started the same way, right before dawn, but this time at a different location. Volunteers took the two-hour trip to Hazard High School, ready to meet another group of inspiring survivors. As they approached their destination, volunteers noticed a scenery that was quite unlike the day before. 

The tragic condition of the flooded city was seen in slumped houses, uprooted trees, damaged furniture, dilapidated buildings, and scrapped vehicles. This community needed help, and our team was ready to get to work. Volunteers pulled up to Hazard High School, and immediately started their second round of set up.

The volunteers developed a stronger tacit understanding than the previous day. Everything went very smoothly. The distribution started after 9 a.m.

Volunteers are familiar with the tasks, and through more clear cooperation, the distribution was carried out efficiently. photography/Bainian Ju
In addition to the distribution of materials, the volunteers had an in-depth understanding of the disaster survivors' situation and comforted their hearts with love. Photo / Bainian Ju

Survivors Share Their Strength Through Struggle

Residents of Hazard were scattered, and many people’s vehicles were scrapped, making the recipient list shorter than the day before. It was something to cherish and appreciate, a day of entirely new opportunity. A small recipient pool made the event more personal as volunteers could spend more time addressing each person’s needs one-on-one. When handing out cash cards, the volunteers listened to the survivors’ situations and offered them companionship and comfort.

A man named Tony Uareed described the chaos that ensued when the flood hit. Although it had been over a month since the storm, everything was still vivid.

My daughter is 19-years-old. She had already been afraid of storms, she kept watching how it was progressing. She kept saying to me, 'This is going to be very, very bad!’ and she was right. The water was getting higher and higher, the car was submerged, and we were trapped. It finally reached our necks and the water in the house rose to 5 feet high, in the garage it was 8 feet, and outside the house it flooded 30 feet or so. We were surrounded by water. Then the power went out, the phone stopped working, and we lost contact with the outside world. From 2 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. the next day, we stayed inside the house. It was a total of 30 hours until the water had receded to knee level so we could open the back door and swam to safety.

Tony continued recounting the family’s experience: “We have nothing…no bed to sleep in, no toothbrush, no comb, nothing at all. It’s very revitalizing to be here, [to find] someone willing to help us, and we feel very good. We can use the cash card to buy food, buy appliances, and other things we need. It is very helpful to us. The volunteers shared the Bamboo Bank with me and I learned that everyone can help each other and contribute. All the volunteers were smiling and made us feel relaxed…they understood what we were going through. Everyone was so kind.”

Young Daniel Hanson, another recipient, said gratefully: “I live alone. At 10 p.m. I went to the bathroom and found that there were already 3 to 4 inches of water. As soon as I walked out the door, the current became so fast that the flood washed my entire house into the creek. Now I am in the process of rebuilding. I feel so lucky to have so many people here to help us, it’s amazing. Thank you all. I received a peace pendant and an eco-blanket. It’s amazing what people do to help us, I’m very grateful. I had a great conversation with the volunteers, which makes me feel wonderful. From the moment I entered the distribution until I left, I always felt that every volunteer cared about me, and I can still feel it now. I’m going to use the cash card to buy more lumber to complete my home’s rebuilding, and if there is any money left over, I’ll use it to help others.”

An elderly and very spirited recipient, Della Ritchie, said: “We were still asleep at 2 a.m. when my daughter called to wake us up. She told me that the water was over the porch of her house, and her house was higher than ours, so we quickly ran to the back door. When we got there, the house was completely flooded. My husband carried me, my granddaughter, and our pet to a safe place. He was injured by some debris in the process. We escaped by a hair, but some of our neighbors lost their lives, and houses on our streets were destroyed. It’s all very sad. What I received today has been a huge help to us, we are currently homeless and have lost all of our personal belongings. This flood has affected our 12-year-old granddaughter a lot.  She loves blankets so she will love this eco-blanket. Many of our commonly used items are gone, so the cash card will be of great help for us to buy our personal supplies and help us in our daily life.”

Volunteers are full of love, taking their time to help us from so far away, giving us help, caring for us from the bottom of their heart…all of which fill my heart with gratitude for humanity. It lets me know the world is filled with people who care. I am so, so grateful.

Recipient Steve Perkins was shy at first, but he couldn’t help expressing his excitement once he got comfortable: “This flood has ruined almost everything we have. It hit like a wall, destroying my neighbor’s prefab, storage room, and house. It’s all washed out. I got a message from Tzu Chi and that’s why I came here. I’m so inspired to see so many people coming to help us and I know that it is a great organization. I received a cash card from Tzu Chi, an eco-blanket made from a PET bottle, and a gift bag, which will be of great help to our recovery. I will use the cash card to buy my most basic needs, such as gasoline and food. I believe that Tzu Chi is a good group because you have so many caring people donating, you are very kind and generous. When I interact with the volunteers, I feel very relaxed.”

Volunteers introduced the Chinese knots that Tzu Chi presents to the survivors, so they could feel the care from their Eastern neighbors. Photo / Bainian Ju
While waiting for the distribution, the recipients listened carefully to the Tzu Chi story and process. Photo / Bainian Ju

Tzu Chi Teams Moved by Memories

The two days of devotion and connection meant so much to the volunteers. Chicago Tzu Chi volunteer Annie Chow shared: “This time I distributed the gift bags, introduced the various items in the gift bags to recipients, and shared about the production process of our eco-blankets. They were very moved. We explained that the funds that helped them came from the Bamboo Banks. They received their own Bamboo Banks and were eager to give back.”

Xun Yan, a member of Tzu Chi Columbus and first-time participant, said emotionally: “This is the first time I have come to participate in Tzu Chi’s disaster relief distribution. This time we came to Kentucky to distribute cash cards and gifts to flood survivors. I am the volunteer in charge of leading them to their seats and filling out forms.” 

The volunteers worked together in harmony. Everyone knew what to do when they arrived and how to make the event a success. It was so much more than just physical and monetary relief, it was the love of another human being that filled the venues with the essence of Tzu Chi’s compassion. So many of the disaster survivors who came were willing to share their stories and thanked the team for everything. There was a camaraderie between each person in attendance, an intertwined bond that felt resembled a family. 

As each Tzu Chi event seems to go, volunteers planted seeds of kindness for those they were helping, with the hope they will nurture their growth. With care and attention, those seeds will blossom to be part of the never-ending circle of love we all share.

I was very touched. When I interacted with the survivors, I saw their grateful faces, and heard their stories. As someone who can help others, it made me more grateful for everything I have. I have a house, work, and I can help others. I'm really grateful.

Tzu Chi volunteers introduced the use of cash cards. Photo / Bainian Ju

Farewell, For Now,

Chong Hsieh, the CEO of Tzu Chi Midwest, eloquently summed up the trip and had high hopes for the future: “The Kentucky flood happened on July 26, and we came in to investigate the disaster area on August 6. When we surveyed survivors’ homes, we saw that some were completely destroyed and others were severely damaged. During this period, we made plans to help those in need. We are very grateful to the brothers and sisters from Chicago, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Detroit, and other places for sacrificing their long vacations, showing great love, and coming to the disaster area to provide recipients with financial and material support. These are very important. Over these two days (when interacting with recipients), they were very grateful to Tzu Chi and said their homes have been destroyed, and there is no insurance. So being able to receive this large sum of money was relieving. They could replace destroyed furniture and necessities. This was very touching to us and we must thank Tzu Chi volunteers for it. 

The flood’s destruction was widespread, and several communities were affected. Our teams were strategic about their planning and visited the two hardest-hit areas: Jackson and Hazard. We estimated that the distribution event would assist hundreds, and the two-day relief service reached nearly 300 households. 

One thing we have learned is that disaster brings a bodhisattva. Last year, Tzu Chi aided over 1000 affected households during the typhoon disaster; months later, the flood in Eastern Kentucky occurred. If there are volunteers locally, we need your help. We hope to continue to work hard so that a Service Center and point of contact can be established here.”

Hopefully these seeds of love can take root and sprout here, and they can take care of this blessed field of Kentucky locally.

The clock struck 3 p.m., signaling the end of the two-day event. The volunteers sorted equipment and remaining materials and packed them up to leave. Everything was ready and there was an overwhelming feeling of a job well done. Volunteers waved goodbye to their new friends, returning home with a heart full of gratitude and perspective.

The September 3-4, 2022, distribution for benefited 255 households, 683 individuals, and distributed $165,800 in total.

Widening the Circle of Compassion

Even after their volunteer work was done, the fulfillment remained in everyone’s hearts. Yaqi Lin, a first-time volunteer, was deeply inspired. She called many friends to detail the experience of participating in the event and shared her thoughts on her Instagram account: “What we do is distribute to the survivors of the flood cash cards worth $600 to $800 and supplies like eco-blankets for people who lost their homes in the flood. It’s not a lot of money for them, but we’re doing something that lets them know that we really understand their pain and that they’re not alone. There is a huge difference between being involved in the distribution and just watching the news. The most touching words I heard from survivors were: ‘Many people just see what we lost, whether it’s our house or money, but it’s our hearts that hurt the most.’”

During the distribution process, I heard so many sad stories and I wish I had more strength to help those in need. I also hope that the news can report more of their stories and let more people know and reach out to them.

Comforting people is at the core of what Tzu Chi does. Love and care are the greatest resources we can give another human. When a person is in complete despair, only love can ignite hope. No matter the circumstance, no matter the location, there is always a way to uplift our fellow humans from their suffering. The mental and emotional strife that natural disasters cause is as potent as any physical loss. Without support, without a helping hand, without an ear willing to listen – the burden can easily become too much to bear. We can carry this notion with us and distribute it to anyone who crosses our path. You are never alone. There is a light after the darkness. And together, our love knows no bounds.

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