From Seattle to Tonasket, Washington, Bringing Disaster Relief and Love

Northwest  |  January 12, 2021
The Tzu Chi team is ready to depart before dawn on their mission to distribute wildfire disaster relief in Washington State’s Okanogan County. Photo/Fandy Tsai

Written by Tiffany Lin
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska

On August 18, a wildfire ignited in the forest adjacent to Palmer Lake in Washington State’s Okanogan County, affecting roughly 18,000 acres of land. Volunteers at the Seattle branch of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region received a notice from the American Red Cross on August 28. A team mobilized immediately to formulate a plan culminating in a disaster relief distribution on October 4.

Before dawn on the late autumn morning of Sunday, October 4, it was still dark as seven volunteers from the Seattle branch were ready to set off from the office toward the Palmer Lake wildfire distribution site, bringing two vehicles full of essential supplies. Their destination was the city of Tonasket, about 250 miles and a nearly five-hour drive away.

Heading toward the Palmer Lake wildfire disaster relief distribution site in Tonasket, Washington. Photo/Fandy Tsai

United by Kindness and Care

The aid distribution site was the Community Cultural Center of Tonasket, a “multipurpose facility for arts, recreation, and education, to encourage family diversity and tolerance” run by a nonprofit organization that had kindly offered the location for the event.  But on the way, as the volunteers passed through the small town of Okanogan, they stopped to visit Jessica Rounds, Disaster Case Manager of Rising From the Ashes: Okanogan County Long Term Recovery.  

Jessica has always been in touch with Tzu Chi volunteers by phone or online, but this was the first time they could meet in person. There was already a friendship between them built through working together to help wildfire survivors in Okanogan County, and now, sharing a moment together only served to deepen it.

As they usually do when paying a visit to partners and friends, the volunteers brought a gift, a symbol of blessings. They gave Jessica some cloth masks, a book of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms in four languages, and a Tzu Chi monthly magazine. 

Touched, Jessica then realized that in her hurry that day, she didn’t bring any local fruits as a gift to offer in return. She wanted to give the volunteers some money to buy the fruits they like at a farmers’ market along the way. The volunteers declined the monetary gift but accepted her kindness with open hearts. They were then on their way again to Tonasket, which was still approximately an hour’s distance away.

The team finally meets Jessica Rounds (middle), Disaster Case Manager at Rising From the Ashes: Okanogan County Long-term Recovery, in person. Photo/ Tiffany Lin
To mark the occasion of their first meeting, the volunteers give Jessica Rounds (left) some gifts as a means to express their good wishes and blessings. Photo/Tiffany Lin

Connecting Heart to Heart

Once the distribution began, the volunteers learned some of the stories of the 17 households they would benefit on this day. And, some of them could empathize deeply with their trauma and losses, having survived a wildfire disaster themselves:

I experienced the fire in the middle of the night. All my belongings were destroyed in moments, and I left my place by car, in pajamas. I can understand the feelings of the wildfire survivors.

From start to finish, the disaster relief mission is one of love and attentive care for wildfire survivors. Photo/Kaiwen Liang

Near the end of the distribution, the volunteers invited everyone still on site, colleagues and wildfire survivors, to join together in prayer and bless each other through song by following along with a Tzu Chi favorite, “Love and Care for All.” 

Some participants felt overcome with emotion while the music played, tears beginning to flow, while others burst out crying. When the prayer was over, they looked up and at each other with hope in their hearts, genuinely experiencing the moment as a union of love. As for the volunteers, they wished everyone well, knowing the difficulties that still lie ahead, especially at this globally challenging moment in time:

Behind the smiles on their faces, the survivors have to face their post-disaster lifestyle; I sincerely wish all the wildfire survivors won't get affected by the pandemic.

Volunteers and wildfire survivors pray together after the distribution. Photo /Herkait Seet
For everyone who took part or benefited, the day was, indeed, a happy and blessed occasion. Photo /Herkait Seet

Before the volunteers left, they gave Tzu Chi monthly magazines and a large backpack of gifts for staff members of the Community Cultural Center of Tonasket, thanking the nonprofit organization for offering the site as the distribution location. Stacey Storm, the venue manager, was deeply moved by the volunteers’ efforts and asked for a picture together with them.

Stacey Storm, Manager at the Community Cultural Center of Tonasket, asks to take a group photo with the Tzu Chi team. Photo/Fandy Tsai, Kaiwen Liang
To express their thanks to the Community Cultural Center of Tonasket, the volunteers offer the staff gifts and information about Tzu Chi’s history and missions. Photo/Fandy Tsai, Kaiwen Liang

Being of Service Gives Them Peace of Mind

It was already three o’clock in the afternoon when the Tzu Chi team finished packing up, and the two vehicles slowly drove away from the distribution site, heading towards home under the setting sun. All in all, it was a long day. The round trip from Seattle to Tonasket would amount to approximately ten hours on the road, and to save time, the volunteers ate meals in the car. Along the way, some suffered from motion sickness; others were troubled by tinnitus. 

Yet Tzu Chi volunteers don’t fear long trips or hours, and no matter the discomforts along the path, being of service and benefit to those in need is what brings them peace of mind. By the time they arrived back at the Seattle branch office at about nine o’clock in the evening, it was under the watchful eye of a rising autumn moon. They said their goodnights to each other, then finally returned home, another mission of love accomplished.

A volunteer explains the making of Tzu Chi’s eco-blankets to Andrea, a Palmer Lake wildfire survivor. Photo/Kaiwen Liang
A volunteer presents a Tzu Chi eco-blanket to Palmer Lake wildfire survivor Angela Shuffelen. Photo/Kaiwen Liang

I experienced the fire in the middle of the night. All my belongings were destroyed in moments, and I left my place by car, in pajamas. I can understand the feelings of the wildfire survivors.

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