A Free Clinic and Food Distribution Brings Relief in East Palo Alto, California

Northwest  |  August 18, 2022
On June 11, 2022, Tzu Chi USA in Northern California resumes free clinic services in the East Palo Alto community. Photo/Andy Chiang

Written by Leslie Shieh
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Before seven in the morning on Saturday, June 11, 2022, a truck loaded with food from Second Harvest Food Bank in Northern California’s Silicon Valley slowly approached Costano Elementary School in East Palo Alto, where Tzu Chi volunteers provide semimonthly food distributions. After the driver unloaded the truck, Tzu Chi volunteers skillfully sorted the different kinds of food in preparation for distribution. Meanwhile, local community residents queued up to register, bringing shopping bags or carts to pick up food that would last them for the next few weeks.

The free clinic site is also where Tzu Chi volunteers will distribute food this time and where semimonthly food distributions take place. Photos/Andy Chiang, Leslie Shieh

While one group of volunteers was busy distributing food in front of the school, another went in and out of the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic vehicle parked at the back of the campus, preparing to offer free medical services. This clinic would be the fourth time the Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region organized free services in this low-income community of mainly South American immigrants and the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providing the Best Medical Care

On that day, a team of 15 professional medical staff and 38 community volunteers jointly completed a free clinic event, aiding 104 low-income patients without medical insurance. This medical care opportunity offered not only dental care per usual but also consultation services and treatments by Traditional Chinese Medicine and chiropractic professionals for the first time. 

Volunteer Yi Han takes X-rays of a patient's teeth. Photo/Andy Chiang

The fluctuation in the severity of the pandemic in the United States added many challenges to operating this free clinic. Even before this event, several medical staff, volunteers, and patients tested positive for COVID. In response, the volunteer team adjusted the layout of the free clinic venue and the planned flow of foot traffic to ensure the safety of patients and volunteers.

Volunteers set up the free clinic one day in advance. Photo/Leslie Shieh
The night before and early morning on the free clinic day volunteers complete preparatory work to provide the public with a safe and comfortable environment. Photo/Andy Chiang

Additionally, volunteers and patients at the free clinic had to have received at least two vaccine doses. All 53 medical staff and volunteers took a rapid COVID test at home and could only serve on site after being confirmed negative. 

As food distribution would occur at the same time as the free clinic in the morning, the volunteers arranged for enough people to help. They then got everything ready the night before to receive patients and hand out food supplies in a safe and orderly manner. 

Consultation at the free clinic is by appointment. Photo/Andy Chiang
There is a waiting area where people can watch videos as they await their appointment. Photo/Andy Chiang

The free clinic adopted an appointment system. When people arrived, they first reported to a registration area, where they showed relevant documents. The clinic staff measured their body temperature and blood pressure and then directed the public to where they could wait until their consultation appointment. Tzu Chi volunteers had also set up a projector and screened Tzu Chi videos and songs in Spanish to create a relaxed and joyous atmosphere in the waiting area.  

Many attending this free clinic were families who have been cared for by Tzu Chi volunteers for a long time. It’s been more than two years since the start of the pandemic. For the residents of East Palo Alto who were already living in poverty, the risk of contracting the virus and dwindling job opportunities made matters worse. Although the government provided some subsidies, many families still desperately needed the help of charities to get by during the crisis.

Tzu Chi volunteers were detail-oriented in serving the community at this event. They provided the most attentive assistance so that the food distribution and free clinic activities could proceed smoothly and on schedule. They even prepared a fun-filled section for kids so their parents could get consultations or treatments with peace of mind.


Tzu Chi volunteers create a special section for children where they can try fun arts during the free clinic. Photos/Andy Chiang

Many residents in this community work manual labor jobs, so their bodies get strained. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and chiropractic care are helpful and effective in alleviating bone and muscle pain. Such newly offered treatments were well received. Patients trying a treatment for the first time reported that their initial soreness eased significantly afterward. 

Accompanying a Family Through Bereavement

The clinic also allowed Tzu Chi volunteers to reconnect with families under long-term case care. Francisco Bustamante came to try a TCM treatment for the first time. His two youngest children study at Belle Haven Elementary School, where Tzu Chi volunteers offer Happy Campus charity programs. Due to the family’s low-income situation and Francisco’s persistent index finger pain, the family became a Tzu Chi USA long-term care case.


Physician Susan Wang carefully checks Francisco’s pulse and provides an acupuncture treatment. Photos/Andy Chiang, Leslie Shieh

In November last year, Tzu Chi volunteers couldn’t get in touch with Francisco’s wife, Elsa Villasenor, for a long time. Only through school administrators did they learn that Elsa died due to a sudden illness. She left behind five children; except for the eldest, Priscilla, all the others are younger than 18. This unexpected accident caught the family by surprise. Tzu Chi urgently provided funeral expenses, living allowances, and spiritual comfort to accompany the family through their grief.

Francisco played the role of both father and mother as he struggled to support the family. The immensity of his combined financial and mental strain is hard to imagine. He eventually developed insomnia, and Tzu Chi volunteers suggested he sign up for the free clinic to treat it. Francisco told Dr. Susan Wang that he often woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back asleep. Dr. Wang helped him with acupuncture and moxibustion after carefully examining his pulse and suggested adjustments to his lifestyle to relieve sleep issues.

Dr. Ashley Chen demonstrates rehabilitation exercises. Photo/Andy Chiang
Dr. Benjamin Su explains how to treat back pain to a patient. Photo/Leslie Shieh

“Tzu Chi volunteers helped me calm down and supported me financially. When they spoke to me, I could feel their compassion and love; they wanted to help me,” Francisco confided.

They wanted to help my family, just as they’ve been helping this community. I’m very grateful to Tzu Chi for helping us through the pain of losing a loved one; thank you very much!

Francisco’s eldest daughter, Priscilla, came to help distribute food that day. She shared that she recognized how Tzu Chi had always cared for the family before her mother died. After her mother’s passing, Tzu Chi immediately provided material relief and spiritual comfort, supporting them through this trying time. During this painful period in the family’s life, Priscilla always felt grateful and hoped to have the opportunity to give back, helping other families in need.

Francisco Bustamante's eldest daughter, Priscilla, takes time off from work to help with food distribution. Photo/Andy Chiang

“Although I’m busy with several jobs, I try to find time to volunteer,” Priscilla explained. “Last year, I was in charge of Tzu Chi’s winter distribution in the East Palo Alto community. This time, I assisted in recruiting patients for the community free clinic. I took time off today to help distribute food and do Spanish translation. It’s a very good thing to be able to help others because Tzu Chi helped my family and me, and I can give back. It’s great to help families in need and make others feel safe and comforted!” Her father couldn’t agree more.

The most important thing for me is that they care for us like family.

Celebrating a Family’s Pride and Joy

Teresa Castro is from another family under long-term care by Tzu Chi volunteers, who received TCM treatments for the first time at this free clinic. In addition to acupuncture, she tried cupping, hoping to relieve knee pain. In 2020, Teresa’s husband had a liver transplant and needed a lengthy recovery at home. Teresa had to take care of him while unable to work due to the pandemic. The family was in a vulnerable situation. In light of that, Tzu Chi volunteers immediately provided daily necessities and continued caring for the family for a long time. 


Teresa Castro receives Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments for the first time and takes advantage of the free clinic to check her teeth. Photos/Andy Chiang

Teresa’s daughter, Lizette, who had just graduated from a local high school, was the recipient of a 2022 Tzu Chi USA Scholars need-based scholarship award. Not only did she excel in school, but she was also willing to help others. Under the guidance of her teacher, she led a team that repaired malfunctioning laptops for students in disadvantaged communities. This volunteer experience was especially meaningful to Lizette as it inspired her to become an engineer. 

I’m so happy our daughter could apply for the Tzu Chi scholarship, which relieves our worries about the burden of tuition fees and immensely reshapes her future.

Motivated, in addition to her demanding school work, Lizette took a part-time job at a restaurant to support the family since her parents were unable to work. She is truly a caring and devoted child. And her outstanding academic achievements earned her admission to several Ivy League schools. Lizette will be attending Columbia University this fall, pursuing a degree in Engineering. She truly is her parent’s pride and joy

I'm so happy that my daughter is going to major in Engineering because she is the first and only of my four children to go to college. My dream is to hear her say aloud: ‘I'm an engineer now!’ Thank you so much for your help.

Supporting Community Volunteers

Fidela, an East Palo Alto resident, has been helping Tzu Chi volunteers during food distributions for many years, sharing their tacit understanding of why serving the community is vital and precious. However, she frequently suffers from back pain. Knowing this, Tzu Chi volunteers registered her for chiropractic treatment at the free clinic. After the food distribution, Fidela rushed to see chiropractor Wendy Chuang, who treated her and taught home self-rehabilitation techniques to speed up the healing process. 


Dr. Wendy Chuang treats Fidela’s back pain and teaches home self-rehabilitation techniques. Photos/Leslie Shieh

The pandemic over the past two years has severely impacted families in poverty. Many residents in East Palo Alto, an impoverished town close to the wealthy technological hub of Silicon Valley, felt the intensified pressure of the economic downturn. However, Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers were there and continue to help those in need.

A team of 53 medical staff and community volunteers is happy to complete this challenging free clinic mission. Photo/Leslie Shieh

Those who are suffering cannot come, so those who are blessed need to extend a helping hand.

Join hands with Tzu Chi USA to help those in need. Thanks to your love and generosity, we can ease suffering and brighten hope during challenging times that life can bring when we least expect it. Let’s always be ready and help without delay.

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