Bringing Love to Mt. San Antonio College Through Food Distributions and Vision Mobile Outreach

National Headquarters  |  March 21, 2020
October of 2020 welcomed the beginning of a brand new semester at Mt. San Antonio College. Tzu Chi USA held a food distribution on campus, providing free groceries for students in need. Photo by Michael Tseng.

Written by Lina Lee, Michael Tseng, Tom Chen, Chiahui Huang, Mandy Lo, Chienchun Lee
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

From sky-high tuition fees, to paying the rent, and affording other crucial day-to-day necessities, it has become the norm for many college students to work two or more jobs in addition to dedicating time to their studies.

Most students, however, have financial constraints, and only earn enough income to cover their most vital living expenses, necessitating limits on the purchase of clothing and food. Colleges will also oftentimes seek alternative resources to assist their students, so they may more easily access food, and thus, allow them to direct their attention to their studies.

In recent years, many programs, such as FAFSA, have conducted a series of research inquiries on the financial well-being of students in college. It has been shown that 36% of all college students and 46% of community college students were considered to be housing insecure. Additionally, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), 30% of college students are food insecure.

Beginning in October of 2019, Tzu Chi USA and Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) jointly launched the first community care project to assist students in need. In the future, further projects will be available to assist these young adults as they navigate a lifestyle of independent living.

Working Together in Support of Students

Knowing that Tzu Chi USA has a mobile food pantry program and wanting to aid students in need, Dr. Koji Uesugi, — who is Dean of Student Services at Mt. San Antonio College — reached out to Tzu Chi’s National Headquarters to collaborate for the school’s food distributions.

On January 23rd, Dr. William Scroggins, President & CEO of Mt. San Antonio College (third left), led a team of senior executives to visit Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters. Dr. Han Huang, Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi USA (fourth right), Jackson Chen, Chief Executive Officer (first left), and Debra Boudreaux, Deputy Executive President (first right), joined the reception. Photo by Michael Tseng.

On January 23, 2019, through Dr. Koji Uesugi’s introduction, Dr. William Scroggins, the President & CEO of Mt. San Antonio College, Dr. Audrey Yamagata-Noji, Vice President of the Student Services, William Lambert, Executive Director of Mt. San Antonio College Foundation, and Alta Skinner, Secretary of the Board of Directors, visited Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters to learn Tzu Chi’s four missions and eight areas of service.

“The visit to Tzu Chi USA is to extend our collaboration into charity, health, and education between the school and Tzu Chi,” shared Dr. Scroggins. Also proposed was a program that would allow Tzu Chi USA to provide a monthly mobile food pantry event, and then, continue to promote beneficial programs for students while encouraging them to participate in Tzu Chi’s humanitarian activities.

Providing Effective Assistance

Tzu Chi USA participates in a food distribution program at Mt. SAC for the first time. The food pantry is similar to an outdoor farmer's market. Photo by Michael Tseng.
Students complete registration forms and receive free groceries in an orderly fashion. Photo by Michael Tseng.

The Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi USA, Dr. Han Huang, thanked the executive team of Mt. SAC for visiting the National Headquarters at San Dimas, California. The main purpose of the visit was to determine the best means of collaboration in the areas of extending food pantry programs and medical services.

Jackson Chen, the CEO of Tzu Chi USA, also mentioned that through these joint efforts, Tzu Chi’s core humanitarian missions can also be introduced through the implementation of charity, medical, and education programs within local communities, which can furthermore serve students in need at Mt. SAC.

After months of discussion and assessment, Tzu Chi volunteers and school representatives revisited the original food pantry program. In considering the living environment and convenience of students, Tzu Chi USA and the school revised the program’s implementation. The vegetable and fruit distribution program originally sought by the school has been modified to provide more convenient products such as Jing Si multi-grain biscuits and instant rice for students, so those with a busy study schedule can easily eat a nutritious meal without spending too much time cooking.

Students and Food Insecurity

Tzu Chi volunteer Wenli Tseng is one of our main contacts with the school. She said that in addition to the pressure of studying, college students also face the added stress of making ends meet. We hope to fund our future and help these students with sufficient food supplies. For example, in addition to providing Jing Si multi-grains and instant rice, we can also take care of their medical needs by providing on-campus vision care, as eye exams and glasses are another serious challenge for today’s college students.

Dr. Koji Uesugi, Dean of Student Services at Mt. SAC, is the go-to person for the program, and a member of the Homelessness Resources Committee. The association has set up food distributions with Sowing Seeds For Life, providing services for approximately 500 – 700 students per month. The school also obtained food from food banks with the help of state funding.

Mt. San Antonio College introduced the program when they realized a large percentage of students needed help. Dr. Uesugi explained that the school surveys found 46% of students were hungry, 18% were homeless, and 58% had financial difficulties in housing. All studies have shown that if students are hungry, they are unable to concentrate on their studies. The school works with community partners to provide monthly food distributions and assist students in applying for CalFresh — a state program that awards qualifying students up to $193 per month for groceries.

Jing Si Multi-Grain Biscuits and Instant Rice Packs

On October 8th, as the new school year was set in motion, Tzu Chi USA joined hands with the school’s food pantry program. The distribution, originally proposed to be held indoors, was switched to outdoor farmers’ market displays instead. The event commenced in the morning — students registered at the main booth, then picked up eco-friendly shopping bags to receive their goods from each booth according to their individual needs. There were tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, cookies, rice, additional daily necessities, and more. Tzu Chi also came prepared with Jing Si multi-grain biscuits and instant rice.

Volunteers demonstrated the preparation steps of Jing Si instant rice on the spot and allowed the students to try it as well. Students were also given eco-friendly bowls if needed. Some students applied for CalFresh on the spot from the California government program if they needed additional assistance on a monthly basis.

“Tzu Chi’s instant rice is easy to prepare. It can be microwaved, or steep the rice when eating outdoors,” said a student named Lu Zhu upon receiving the Jing Si rice and eco-friendly bowl. “Tzu Chi is a good charity organization, providing free food and medical care. I remember — there’s Chinese acupuncture, vision care, and dental care. I used to help with translation at the Tzu Chi Clinic. Tzu Chi is truly amazing.”

“You gave me an eco-friendly cup for hot water — thank you very much,” another student named Adrian said. “It really means a lot to us students, especially to struggling students like me. Thank you very much!”

Vision Mobile Medical Outreach on Campus

An Ophthalmologist, Dr. Jeanne Wu, provides assistance at Medical Outreach events across East Los Angeles. Photo by Wesley Tsai.
Hsinhua Lee was delighted to see a patient’s smile when handing over his new prescription eyeglasses. Photo by Wesley Tsai.

After the food pantry program was officially implemented, Tzu Chi Vision Mobile returned to the Mt. SAC campus on October 10th. Approximately 1/3 of the students never had their eyes examined before, and many were determined to better understand their eye health. Thus, they got their first eye exam ever at Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinic. If glasses were needed, they were able to pick their frames there as well.

Starting in September, Dr. Jeanne Wu, who is in charge of Tzu Chi Vision Mobile in the East Los Angeles area, organized a Medical Outreach event at Mt. SAC once per month. She explained that there are many students at Mt. SAC who have no resources to examine their eyes, and she hopes to help facilitate good eye health through Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile visits. This will likewise allow many students who were never able to obtain prescription glasses to make strides in their coursework which would have been hindered previously due to their vision.

Hsinhua Lee, a nurse from Taiwan, was referred by a senior Tzu Chi volunteer, and began participating in each Vision Mobile outreach event at Mt. SAC. Jason Wong is in charge of Vision Mobile, taught Hsinhua how to navigate all the different pieces of eye examination equipment. As she took part in more medical outreach events, Hsinhua also became more familiar with the equipment, and found the work extremely fulfilling.

“Besides helping and giving, I also learned a lot of things. I once gave a patient the glasses after it was complete and he thanked me with a warm smile. He said it was because he saw my smile; he felt my care and happiness. He felt touched,” Hsinhua said. “It turns out that a warm smile and greetings can make them feel comfortable and happy, too. In fact, a small gesture like that is deeply appreciated in a person’s heart.”

Availability of Eye Exams

A free vision exam is very helpful to me. The cost of medical care in America is very expensive, especially when there’s an additional fee for an eye examination. I have no insurance and a free exam is my best option to receive an eye examination for astigmatism, and so on. The overall experience from the doctor to the detailed examination was very comfortable, and the doctor also answered my questions clearly.

“It feels good to receive an eye exam from a Tzu Chi doctor, and it’s all free,” said Xueying Wu. “The staff is very friendly and I feel comfortable here. Some of my classmates don’t have medical insurance. I will also refer them to examine their eyes and get glasses here.”

Another student, Brianna, said she knew she must have needed glasses since elementary school, as she realized she couldn’t see things at a distance. Her mother, however, had minimized the issue, thinking she only wanted a pair of glasses because she saw so many other children wearing them.

Dr. Wu (left), addresses the questions and concerns of a student, Xueying Wu (right). Photo by Wesley Tsai.
Brianna was pleased to pick out her new glasses after the eye exam, free of charge. Photo by Wesley Tsai.

Brianna hadn’t been able to learn how to read as a child because of her vision problems, and was behind on her homework. The school had also informed her mother that she may need to attend special education classes. Eventually, however, Brianna received an eye exam and took some time to get a thorough check-up. When she returned home to her mother with the checklist, she said the doctor told her she needed glasses. Deborah was shocked, remembering how she’d ignored Brianna’s needs earlier, and sincerely apologized to Brianna for her mistake.

Brianna and her mother, Deborah, came to the Vision Mobile event together after seeing the flyer from school. Both mother and daughter received a new pair of glasses. “Fortunately, there are people like you; I think you came to the right school to help,” Deborah said. “You’re very important, because we need your services whether we’re in middle school or college, thank you very much.”

Embracing a Legacy of Love

Through the care of Mt. SAC student services and Tzu Chi USA, this collaborative effort not only provides food and free vision care for students in need, but genuine love and hope, enabling students to pursue their dreams.

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