Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
The clear and pleasant sounds of a harmonica drift through the Santa Cruz County Government Center’s atrium, like a soft breeze under Silicon Valley’s blue skies. The melody is reminiscent of a bird singing in the woods, to a beat evocative of waves breaking along California’s coast.
Sampson Wolfe, a survivor of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz, lowers his harmonica for a moment to say, “I don’t speak Chinese, but I want to play this music to express my gratitude to Tzu Chi volunteers. Thank you for your help.”
Sampson had just received a cash card and essential supplies at one of Tzu Chi USA’s wildfire disaster aid distributions in Santa Cruz County, and playing his harmonica was a heartfelt way of saying thanks.
Since mid-August, northern California has been affected by wildfires, and many surrounding areas have incurred severe damage. Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region volunteers held their first disaster relief distribution on September 13 and continued through into the next month, holding their sixth distribution on October 24.
That latest distribution, provided by a team of 24 participating Tzu Chi volunteers, benefited 123 individuals from 53 households. A total of $23,300 in cash cards were distributed, in addition to 122 cloth masks, 20 bags of Tzu Chi’s Jing Si Instant Rice, and 18 eco-blankets.
Letting Go of the Past and Looking Forward to a New Chapter
“I feel the freedom, I’m actually excited about this new chapter of my life,” said Diane Otter, a 75-year-old who came to Tzu Chi USA’s disaster aid distribution on crutches. Although she lost her house to the CZU Fire, Diane was facing the future with ease.
There was wisdom in her attitude, echoed in the Buddha’s teachings concerning such unexpected situations in life, which guide one to view whatever happens spiritually.
Diane and her 77-year-old husband, Lee Otter, who sat at her side peacefully participating in the conversation with volunteers, have been married for 50 years. Diane’s golden and Lee’s silver-grey hair shimmered under the autumn sun, while their eyes revealed the calm in how they face life and look upon the world – no matter the challenges that rear up along the path, substantial ones of late.
Lee and Diane lived in a beautiful town near the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by views and natural splendor. That is until the CZU Fire burned down their home and the bits and pieces collected over half a century since their marriage, approaching its 50th anniversary this year.
But the couple’s calm wasn’t shaken by the material tragedy, as they explained in unison, “We accepted all this almost immediately because hanging on to the things that have turned into ashes doesn’t help.” On the contrary, they see the loss of possessions as a chance to relive moments from the past; although the wildfire scorched things they’d accumulated, it couldn’t steal their good memories.
The only thing that made them sad was when they talked about their 17-year-old dog. As Lee and Diane fled the fire, the couple’s beloved pet was in the car with them but got sick due to the thick smoke it inhaled along the way of their escape. After a few days, the couple had to let the dog go humanely, and now mourn his passing, saying, “We will miss him because he’s a member of our family.”
As for their loss of inanimate objects, Lee and Diane took it in stride peacefully. When many of their neighbors felt sad about what had burned, Lee and Diane thought, “Do we need to buy the things we’ve lost? Do we really need these things?” They took the circumstances as an opportunity to reflect on their lifestyle after the wildfire and discover a greater simplicity, perhaps.
At nearly 80 years of age, Lee and Diane had accepted this as a new beginning, which they shared when they thanked Tzu Chi volunteers for providing immediate disaster aid: “We’re not attached to what we lost in the fire. We got our memories for life and our expectations to rebuild the future.”
Sharing the Blessings of Love
Sampson Wolfe, a Native American belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, had lived in a cabin in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park’s Little Basin Campground when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire struck. As he was away at the time, he had no chance of salvaging any belongings and everything he owned was lost in the blaze. Fortunately, he would soon be a care recipient at Tzu Chi’s disaster relief distribution in Santa Cruz.
Sampson was extremely thankful after receiving emergency aid from Tzu Chi USA, which included an eco-blanket. He explained that in his tribe, receiving a blanket as a gift represents an honor.
To express his gratitude for the blanket and everything else that Tzu Chi volunteers had given him, Sampson wanted to extend the same kind of love he felt he’d received. His way of doing that was through music and playing his harmonica for everyone at the distribution.
Gathering Together as a Community
Sean Bergman, a young survivor of the CZU Fire, had lived in a community where more than half of the residents suffered extensive losses due to the blaze. At Tzu Chi’s disaster relief distribution, he described to volunteers how, after the wildfire, neighbors in the community had been helping each other with the cleanup of their properties and the remains of their homes.
Sean used to think that people in the community seemed a bit distant. However, since the wildfire hit, he has seen everyone collaborating in the recovery, sharing information about available relief resources to rebuild, and offering a helping hand themselves. After receiving disaster aid from Tzu Chi, Sean also expressed that he genuinely appreciated the spirit in which Tzu Chi volunteers were helping out, making the well-being of wildfire survivors a top priority.
Initially, Sean hesitated to accept other people’s help, but having received assistance to help him get through his temporary difficulties, he was inspired to help others in the future himself.
Listening to Their Hearts
Some of the Tzu Chi volunteers on the team were relatively new and gained a deeper understanding of the joy of service during the disaster relief distributions in Santa Cruz.
Yemay Hsieh, for instance, was participating in a large-scale distribution event for the first time and had a chance to experience firsthand how sincere love and care can truly touch people’s hearts.
For volunteer Stan Chang, it was the second time joining the Tzu Chi team in distributing disaster relief, and he shared how seeing wildfire survivors urgently need assistance made him want to help. “We’re like a family, and while caring for them, I realize being able to give is fortunate.”
Since she joined as a volunteer, Min Dai loves being part of Tzu Chi, with its philosophy of always giving, but had been hesitant about participating in relief distributions, lacking confidence in her English communication skills. However, with the encouragement of other volunteers, she seized the opportunity to give, and joined the Tzu Chi team at the sixth distribution in Santa Cruz, even offering a few words of moral support to aid recipients, as best she could.
Because the pandemic is still ongoing, all the care recipients and Tzu Chi volunteers at the distributions wore masks which hid their facial expressions, but that didn’t inhibit a human connection from being formed, as love and care radiate from one’s eyes.
Love and Care Helps Soothe Feelings of Sorrow and Loss
As Tzu Chi volunteers listened carefully when care recipients expressed their needs, this attentive concern inspired those receiving aid to help others in turn. One wildfire survivor, Neftali, was deeply touched when learning the story of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks, and inspired to join the cycle of love:
When Neftali pulled out his bag of coins and began pouring them into a bamboo bank, he ended up filling two right on the spot. Simultaneously, the joy of giving helped to assuage all the sorrow caused by the wildfires, which was substantial, as the volunteers learned when he recounted his story.
Neftali had lived on the Bay Area’s southern coast, where he ran a surfboard production studio. But everything changed in a flash when the CZU Fire Complex blazed through the Ta Cruz Mountains and destroyed not only houses in the area but also burned Neftali’s studio and all his tools.
These heavy losses – impacting not only his home but also his livelihood, and especially during a pandemic – are indeed hard to bear. And yet, beyond the cash card received, Neftali also felt his spirit being soothed as Tzu Chi volunteer Phreya Wu, her voice cracking with emotion, read Master Cheng Yen’s condolence letter to wildfire survivors.
With tears in his eyes, he told Phreya, “I can feel the letter is written with lots of love, and I have mixed feelings in my heart. I’m sad and happy.” Then, reflecting on the coins he’d just donated to help others in their time of need, he said, “This is an emergency fund I saved. Today, this emergency fund found a home.”
Before he left, carrying a cash card, blanket, and cloth mask, volunteer Mingling Chiang took out two coins from the bamboo banks Neftali had just filled and placed them in a new bank. As she gave it to him, she said, “Let your love continue to accumulate.”
Grabbing it, he said that if his studio can reopen, he’ll place it in the shop and explain to every customer where it came from and where it will go, promising, “I’ll bring back a full bamboo bank to see you soon.”
Please join hands with Tzu Chi USA in bringing vital aid to disaster survivors across the United States, even amid a pandemic. Together, we can make a difference by helping people suffering after calamities turn their lives upside down.