Prayer and Service Post-Pandemic: Volunteers and Recipients Alike Give Back to the Ukraine

Southern  |  March 5, 2022
Tzu Chi Southern Region takes the opportunity of the first food distribution event in 2022 to conduct fundraising activities for Ukrainian refugees. Photo/Jong Wu

Written by Penny Liu, Carolyn Chen, Jennifer An, Wendy Tang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Two years ago, 7.9 billion people got sick at the same time. Coronavirus infected 511 million people and killed over 6 million of those victims. But the COVID-19 pandemic caused much more than just physical illness; our world would become unwell in a way we could have never prepared for. Not a human being on the planet was left unscathed by the harrowing, elusive virus and we saw manifestations of it everywhere.

The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in the predominance of depression and anxiety.  The Center for Disease Control associated Covid-19 with the 28% increase in fatal drug overdoses. Pew Research Center found 25% of Americans said they, or someone in their household, lost a job due to the pandemic. Many of those who were temporarily unhoused found themselves in dire situations. Global citizens who were financially struggling went into a state of financial crisis. And 1 out of every 6 households experienced food insecurity.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s SDG Action Team is an official NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council; they advocate for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while outreaching Tzu Chi’s projects that target them. Zero Hunger is the second of the 17 goals, and our organization has worked tirelessly in contributing to that intention.

The Tzu Chi Southern Region’s food distribution efforts are just one part of the whole of our foundation’s efforts to end hunger. Our Southern Region’s team has a long-standing relationship with the Houston Food Bank in Texas, regularly holding food distribution activities in the community to deliver sustenance and support. At the end of 2021, the distribution was suspended again due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Only recently has the pandemic shown signs of slowing down, finally allowing the distribution activities to resume. On March 5, a total of 227 households were able to feed their families with supplies from the Tzu Chi Southern Region food distribution.

A Platform for Endless Possibilities

When Tzu Chi volunteers gather for an event, they seek opportunities to raise awareness and encourage others to join the organization in creating change. Sometimes that comes in the form of speaking more about a vegetarian diet. Other events provide space for spiritual growth and reflection. Many instances have recipients turn into volunteers as they hear the struggles of others.

The food distribution in Texas took place at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict; the current strife of the Ukrainian people was in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Millions of Ukrainians have already fled their homes and countless others are still in the throes of chaos. 

Tzu Chi has been actively carrying out humanitarian aid in Poland, and has launched a worldwide fundraising campaign to help Ukrainian refugees. Our Southern Region Office’s volunteers knew they needed to carry this message of compassion, so they used the March 5 food distribution event as a platform to highlight the current initiatives. The team encouraged recipients to pay it forward by sending their love in forms of donations for Ukrainians in exile.

Prayers for Ukrainian Refugees

The tears of Ukrainian refugees reach everyone's heart despite the barrier of computer screen. Photo/Jong Wu

The day of giving back wasn’t only about the food distribution, it was dedicated to offering a collective prayer for those in need. The team of volunteers united at Jing Si Hall of Tzu Chi Southern Region Office to pray for peace for Ukrainian refugees. Sean Lo, the new CEO of the branch, distributed red envelopes to the volunteers on behalf of Master Cheng Yen. After the gathering, everyone used the remaining hour to prepare for the distribution. Volunteers packaged food categorically and scheduled tasks as they anticipated the arrival of local families.

Even before the distribution was set to begin, there were lines of cars waiting in the drive-thru lanes. Volunteers took the donation boxes and posters for Ukrainian refugees to share with people sitting in each car. The signs introduced the ​”Love & Compassion for Ukraine” fundraising event, inspiring residents to join in emergency humanitarian relief operations. It was an incredible sight to see the recipients immediately donate to the cause. An act of kindness is like energy: it cannot be destroyed. Compassion is a circle, never-ending and only extending its circumference.Most who came to the event did not have excessive means of their own, but it did not stop them from helping those in greater need than themselves. 

Some beneficiaries expressed their gratitude for being in a safe environment, and especially sympathized with the refugees who had been displaced by the war. Many of the residents we met that day have had their own troubles in life, which make them selflessly willing to help when they could, however they could.

Tzu Chi volunteers Jennifer An (right) and Wendy Tang (left) soliciting donations from people waiting to receive the supplies. Photo/Jong Wu

A security guard who often came to assist with the event saw the volunteers holding the donation box, and took out a hundred dollar bill right away. He said that he was very happy to do his part to help Ukrainian refugees, and was adamant about doing good deeds anonymously.

Volunteer Wendy Tang was a new member of the team and this was her first fundraising mission. Wendy said, “This is a special experience for me, because there are always unexpected situations. I need to seize the time to spread Tzu Chi’s philosophy and introduce the fundraising activity for Ukraine refugees to everyone I can. [Referring to her excitement] At times I even need to adjust my speaking pace and presentational style by referring to the other person’s body language.”

When I get rejected, I would think, "You're changing the world, you're helping some refugees get out of or improve their lives." Then, I would get strength again. It's like there's an impetus that motivates me to keep pitching the donation box to another citizen.

Volunteer Wendy Tang

Do Good Deeds With Palms Down

Volunteer Carolyn Chen leads the elderly who have come to line up early in the morning to practice Tzu Chi sign language. Photo/Jong Wu

Elderly locals are regular faces at Tzu Chi’s distribution events. They can be seen walking up to get in line early in the morning, before anyone else arrives. Some senior citizens bring their own folding chairs and chat with neighbors as they wait, catching up on what’s happening around town. Volunteers saw the familiar sight as an opportunity to teach Tzu Chi sign language to the early birds and their friends. The team shared Master Cheng Yen’s “Jing Si Aphorisms” as a warm-up activity. Each impromptu student chose a bookmarked quote from the “Jing Si Aphorisms” and read it aloud. Some were emotional while reading the quotes and taking in the simple yet profound wisdom of Master Cheng Yen.

Leading with the phrase “open heart brings fortune,” volunteers hoped that the senior citizens could seize time and greet the arrival of good fortune every day. The exaggerated hand movements used in sign language help relax the muscles in the same ways as Tai Chi. The teachers encouraged everyone to practice reciting the “Jing Si Aphorisms” daily while exercising their muscles, not only to strengthen their bodies to open their hearts.

An elderly man from the senior home next door expresses to volunteer Carolyn Chen (right) that he hopes Tzu Chi would resume caring activities as soon as possible. Photo/Jong Wu

During the activity, the volunteers talked about Tzu Chi’s Bamboo Banks. When Tzu Chi was founded, it was aided by 30 housewives who saved 50 cents per day to help those in need. The team hoped to motivate people to do one small good deed, every day. The prayers before the distribution were also a force to lead people into a peaceful state of mind. Everyone clasped their hands and recited the lyrics together with the melody of the song “Prayer.” Before receiving the supplies, everyone practiced the sign language of “open heart brings fortune” together again. Some of them not only collected the supplies, but a Tzu Chi Bamboo Bank as well.

The senior living home is adjacent to Tzu Chi Southern Region’s Office. A resident person who came to pick up food said, “Due to the pandemic, the residents of the apartment have not interacted with Tzu Chi for a long time. Everyone misses the past when Tzu Chi volunteers would accompany and interact with them every week.” Many senior citizens have repeatedly asked when the volunteers would resume their regular visits, emphasizing that they have been anxiously awaiting Tzu Chi’s return to normalcy.

This food distribution was the first for Tzu Chi’s Southern Region this year, and it was also a special event for the community to collectively show love and care for Ukrainian refugees. As volunteers offered their service and the recipients came to collect food, both parties were inspired as they realized the impermanent and fleeting nature of life.

After the war broke out, countless Ukrainian families lost everything overnight and went on a journey of exile. The event’s beneficiaries prayed and donated money for the Ukrainian refugees, in accordance with Master Cheng Yen’s teaching: “Everyone has a clear stream in his heart, a field of blessing, and a hidden source of abundance.” Even if you have nothing of material worth to your name, everyone has the energy of love in their hearts. We help others with our palms down, and we ask for help with our palms up. Throughout our lives, our hands will continuously change positions, so when we aren’t in a place of immediate need, we must do what we can.

The distribution and fundraising data are reported immediately after distribution. Photo/Jong Wu

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