Tzu Chi’s Financial Relief Helps Families Overcome Challenges in East Palo Alto

Northwest  |  December 22, 2020
A Tzu Chi volunteer, Christine Liu, issues a cash card to the family member of a COVID-19 patient and introduces Tzu Chi’s missions. Photo by Ellen Chen.

Written by Leslie Shieh
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the upheavals people have experienced in their daily lives have been many, and for those who’ve struggled to make ends meet even before the crisis arose, obtaining the necessities has become all the more precarious.

One such community that has been deeply impacted is East Palo Alto in California. There are many underprivileged residents who call the community home, and are usually working class in manual labor. Additionally, the residents without permanent residency status are unable to receive a government subsidy during the ongoing pandemic.

For ten years, the love and care of Tzu Chi volunteers has been a steadfast presence in the community with the help of our Happy Campus Program, and volunteers have upheld a lasting relationship with the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto. Knowing the unique hardships the community faces, volunteers assessed the situation and were determined to lend a helping hand.

Tzu Chi volunteers assist in food distribution at a local food bank. Photo by Christine Liu.

Volunteers reached out to the School District in East Palo Alto to pass on the message to low-income families that were severely affected by the pandemic. The school district helped Tzu Chi translate the flyers into Spanish and sent them home with students, asking the families to come to the East Palo Alto food bank if they need help. Tzu Chi volunteers visit the food bank every Saturday morning to assist in the distribution of food and help with registration.

A Tzu Chi volunteer, Christine Liu, provides her assistance with the registration process. Photo by Ellen Chen.

In East Palo Alto, several families frequently live together to reduce the financial burden. According to national statistics, the infection rate among Spanish-speaking ethnic groups is higher than other ethnic groups. Therefore, a federally funded COVID-19 screening and testing site was set up at the local YMCA to screen residents on weekends. It helps reduce the spread in the community by providing access to a means for early detection.

A free COVID-19 testing site set up by the City of East Palo Alto. Photo by Leslie Shieh.

Alexandra Browne participated in Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus Program when she was a teacher at Belle Haven School. She is also a member of the COVID-19 testing site’s service team. Tzu Chi volunteers asked Alexandra if she could help distribute Tzu Chi flyers to those at the testing site. She agreed without hesitation, and kindly thanked Tzu Chi for the services provided by volunteers over the years at Belle Haven Elementary School. Tzu Chi volunteers also gave Alexandra Tzu Chi cloth masks to show their appreciation for all that she does.

Tzu Chi volunteer Leslie Shieh gives Alexandra a Tzu Chi cloth mask as a token of appreciation for all that she does. Photo by Michelle Wong.

Laura Haggins, a local Tzu Chi volunteer and advisor for Tzu Chi’s charity cases, is also the person in charge of distributions at the local food bank. Laura entered the new volunteer orientation for Tzu Chi at the end of 2019, and has taken the steps to become a Tzu Chi volunteer. Having grown up in East Palo Alto, Laura is familiar with the community. After her recommendations, many eligible families submitted their applications to Tzu Chi for assistance.

A Tzu Chi volunteer, Leslie Shieh, accompanies Laura Haggins and Patricia Townsend at a prior Tzu Chi volunteer training seminar. Photo by Jean So.

Veronica Ibarra works at a local kindergarten in East Palo Alto, where several parents have expressed difficulties because they’ve gotten sick during the pandemic. Veronica knew Tzu Chi offered assistance  thanks to Laura’s work, and quickly relayed the situation to Tzu Chi volunteers. Many of these families only spoke Spanish, and volunteers asked Veronica to take on the role of a translator to better communicate with the families.

Veronica Ibarra (middle) assists a Tzu Chi volunteer, Christine Liu, as a Spanish translator. Photo by Ellen Chen.

Helping Affected Households Overcome Challenges

Laura and Veronica provided all the necessary information for the families that needed immediate aid. Many of the individuals that sought help were undocumented. Cynthia is one local in the community who is undocumented and shared her story with us. She came to the United States from Central America. Her husband, however, was deported two and a half years ago, and now Cynthia works hard to raise her two children alone. They live in a rented modified garage and she made a living by working for a cleaning service. Cynthia lost her job due to the pandemic, and caught COVID-19 as well. Because she must remain in quarantine at home, she couldn’t pick up her cash card from Tzu Chi at the food bank, and her children are too young to pick it up for her. And so, Tzu Chi volunteers and Veronica visited Cynthia’s home to give her the cash card, and wished her a speedy recovery.

Tzu Chi volunteers, Michelle Wong and Veronica Ibarra, visit a beneficiary at her home to provide a cash card and cloth mask. Photo by Leslie Shieh. 

Joline faces a similar situation. She is also an undocumented single mother who lives with her three children. She has likewise become infected with COVID-19, and is currently quarantined at home. Because Joline cannot leave, Tzu Chi volunteers came to her, and gave her a cash card as well. Joline expressed her gratitude and told volunteers that she was admitted to the emergency room because of her sudden surge in blood pressure the day prior. She’s grateful for the timely support to help get through these difficult times.

Several beneficiaries caught COVID-19 from a hospital visit. Camille’s husband was admitted to the emergency room due to a heart condition. Unfortunately, he was infected while at the hospital. His condition became critical and needed to be put on a ventilator, but fortunately, he has since recovered from the virus. The doctor said it was a miracle that he survived.

Camille has four children, including a nine-month-old son. He has congenital heart disease as a result of his premature birth. Although he survived the surgery, Camille can’t afford the cost of follow up treatments. Camille, who additionally lives with postpartum depression, is without the support of her husband while he’s ill, and her baby’s medical bills continue to tower. When she received the cash card from Tzu Chi, she told the volunteers about her situation. Volunteers provided their comfort and support with an attentive ear in the hopes of easing her heartache.

A Tzu Chi volunteer, Ellen Chen, gives a cash card and cloth mask to a beneficiary in need of aid. Photo by Michelle Wong.

Helen is a medical assistant who screens and tests patients for COVID-19 at a local hospital. Unfortunately, she tested positive for COVID-19 and needed to be treated. She’s a single mother of two children who are three and four years of age. Due to the pandemic and the sudden loss of income, their lives were thrown off track. She applied for relief from Tzu Chi through Veronica, and picked up her cash card at the food bank after she recovered.

Volunteers Seize the Moment

Since May, Tzu Chi volunteers have been issuing COVID-19 relief funds at Ravenswood Middle School. Carefully donning personal protective equipment, Tzu Chi volunteers disinfect the tables and chairs on-site, strictly following social distancing guidelines to protect themselves and the families who come to pick up the relief funds. In addition to cash cards, volunteers hand out handmade cloth masks and Tzu Chi brochures to the families. As for the residents who are in isolation, Tzu Chi volunteers drop off the cash card and complete the verification on the sidewalk.

A volunteer, Christine Liu, provides a cash card and handmade cloth masks. Photo by Ellen Chen.

Volunteer Christine Liu immigrated from Taiwan to the United States when she was a child. “When the local officials announced the stay home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, I realized that this would be the right time to put [Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s] teachings into action,” said Christine. “An inner voice told me we should go beyond distractions and fears to help those in need. I thought about what Master Cheng Yen would like us to do. ‘Just do the right thing at the right time!’ For me, the answer is that simple. Every family we helped in East Palo Alto will become a seed in the community. Over time, when the time is right, the seed will grow and become a force that can help other families. This is a cycle of love and goodness with endless possibilities.”

Volunteer Michelle Wong issues cash cards and cloth masks at Ravenswood Middle School with the help of the school staff. Photo by Ellen Chen.

As a student of Buddhism, one needs to learn to understand principles, seize every moment in life, and act on one's beliefs.

When faced with the uncertainty of COVID-19, going outside for any amount of time can make anyone feel uneasy. At the time of distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers reminded each other to wear personal protective equipment and mindfully uphold careful social distancing measures, so that everyone would be at ease. A Tzu Chi volunteer, Michelle Wong, who’s in charge of the relief project said that now she understands why Master’s teachings are so important. There are many people in distress. If we want to follow the Bodhisattva path, we must seize the opportunity to mindfully do good for others. Tzu Chi volunteers will continue to provide their comfort and care for our most vulnerable community members, and offer much-needed hope in this time of great need.

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