Tzu Chi Food Distributions in East Palo Alto Are a Team Effort

Northwest  |  July 2, 2021
Every Saturday morning, more than a dozen community and Tzu Chi volunteers work together to deliver groceries to families in East Palo Alto, CA. Photo/Christina Chang

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang  
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

In June, the rising sun shone brightly upon East Palo Alto’s food bank as a dozen Tzu Chi and community volunteers prepared for food distribution activities. These activities are carried out each Saturday morning in California, and volunteers were delighted to welcome the help of Elaine and her two children. 

When locals arrived at the event via a drive-through distribution method, Elaine and her children opened car trunks and carefully placed the groceries within, waves of sincere thanks and farewells abounding. Elaine’s family has lived in the United States for more than a year, and they’re committed to doing good for the community. 

“Since receiving Tzu Chi’s help, I can also help others; it’s really a great feeling,” Elaine said, voice full of optimism.

Elaine and her two boys immigrated to the United States from Mexico over a year ago, and they’re dedicated to helping others. Photo/Christina Chang

In East Palo Alto, the community has gradually reopened after vaccinations became more widely available. However, the food bank has long played an integral role in empowering the community, even before the pandemic. Tzu Chi volunteers have collaborated with the food bank to support food distributions in recent years, including during the pandemic. 

What’s Next For The Community?

Elaine, a mother of two young boys, moved to East Palo Alto in January of 2020. Unexpectedly, the pandemic soon shook the globe, and the family of three often did not know where their next meal would come from. Upon discovering Tzu Chi and the aid provided by volunteers through her son’s school, Elaine vowed to return the kindness she received. 

Participating in community service every Saturday at the food distributions with Tzu Chi volunteers, Elaine and her two sons found empowerment through seeing the results of their efforts, and rediscovered their smiles as well. And indeed, the radiance of sunny California itself warmed all who met the trio.

Elaine and her two sons find hope through volunteering their time in the community food distribution. Photo/Christina Chang

Although California reopened in mid-June and the government continued providing subsidies for low-income households, beginning on July 1, 2021, tenants will have to pay the full amount of their rent to be protected from eviction. In Silicon Valley, the high cost of rent has become one of the most pressing challenges for families. While Elaine was successful in securing a job in June, which can help relieve some of the pressure, due to her status, she cannot apply for government subsidies. Even so, Elaine believes that she can face the challenges with a smile. “With the help from Tzu Chi, I find that I’m also able to give. Every morning, I wake up with gratitude and appreciation. I’m grateful for staying healthy and the life ahead,” she said.  

Continuous Food Distributions

Laura Haggins, the site leader for Second Harvest, is also a community volunteer and Tzu Chi’s contact for the East Palo Alto Food Distribution. She has also been a resident of East Palo Alto for many years. Her long-term and in-depth observation of the community revealed that after California resumed normal operations in June, the primary source of stress from the community was still the high rent.

Laura Haggins collaborates with Tzu Chi volunteers to serve the community and has many years of dedicated experience. Photo/Christina Chang

Laura explained that due to the presence of Facebook and Amazon in East Palo Alto, the housing prices and rents have gone up year after year, which is the most significant economic challenge for low-income families. Therefore, the ability to receive free groceries is crucial. 

During the pandemic, food distributions provided meals for students from Monday to Friday, and every Saturday morning, distributions are held via a drive-through method. “Every Monday to Saturday, throughout the year, the food distribution will always be there, and continues rain or shine to support every family and resident in need in the community,” said Laura.

Laura Hudgens said that the need for food distributions is still crucial despite the reopening, and those food distributions will continue to serve families facing food insecurity. Photo/Christina Chang

Tzu Chi Volunteers Expand Their Care

Tzu Chi volunteers have served the East Palo Alto community for ten years, and have also implemented Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus program at schools within the community. In recent years, they have been referred by school officials to help with community food distributions on Saturday mornings.

Tzu Chi volunteers participate in community food distribution activities and help load food into a vehicle in the drive-through. Photo/Christina Chang

A Tzu Chi volunteer, Leslie Shieh, is in charge of coordinating the service plan, and described how Tzu Chi volunteers continued to care for the community during the pandemic. In addition to granting cash cards to families, they also held distributions of pandemic prevention supplies at the same location on Saturdays. Multiple teams of Tzu Chi volunteers were mobilized to make and arrange the pandemic prevention care packages at home and deliver them to the distribution site.

After California resumed normal operations in mid-June, Leslie said they would increase the number of volunteers to more than ten in order to provide sufficient human resources for the food distributions, compared with only five volunteers who were on-site every Saturday before the reopening. In addition to the distribution of groceries, Leslie said their next project would focus on helping high school students in the process of applying for college. “Only education can help students find the opportunity for a better future,” Leslie said. “Their lives will be changed, and they will be able to contribute to a better community.” In 2021, volunteers mentored a high school student who they’d been assisting for two years and obtained admission to the University of California, Berkeley. One of her most prominent goals centers on learning more about local non-profit organizations to discover ways of helping more residents in need.

Tzu Chi volunteers from Silicon Valley regularly participate in food distributions every Saturday. Photo/Christina Chang

Bridging Resources with Love

A Tzu Chi volunteer, Michelle Wong, who serves as a window for charity missions in the community, is mindful of the fact that many in the community do not qualify for government subsidies due to their status. Moreover, due to language barriers, many community members in need of help also have fewer opportunities to contact non-governmental social welfare organizations to obtain another channel of assistance.

During the pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers provided financial assistance in the form of cash cards to 40 families in the community. Among Tzu Chi’s care recipients was Angela, who was diagnosed twice with COVID-19. She was hospitalized for four days from the first time, and Tzu Chi volunteers often called to inquire about her needs. Therefore, when Angela was diagnosed a second time, volunteers brought food to her during her time at home. When they did so, volunteers found a note posted on the door written by Angela’s family to thank Tzu Chi volunteers. 

Tzu Chi volunteers encourage care recipients to join the community food distribution as volunteers as well. Photo/Christina Chang

“The most important thing is to help people find resources and do what we can,” shared Michelle. “This is Tzu Chi’s strength, not just financial assistance, but to be a bridge between residents and resources.”

While the road to recovery may be rugged, we can go a long way together by walking side-by-side with love in our hearts.

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