Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus Program Helps Students Make the Grade in East Palo Alto

Northwest  | November 10, 2021
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A Tzu Chi volunteer, Dizhong Cao, helps students learn how to write with the attentiveness of a caring parent. Photo/Xiuru Xie

Written by Ping Lee
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Ten years ago, Tzu Chi volunteers entered the community of East Palo Alto, their “Happy Campus” team actively supporting school teachers in providing humanistic culture courses within the local district, and helped bolster the student attendance rate. Together, they established a new Tiger Paw Store in a partner school, Belle Haven School, to reward students weekly for their attendance and attentiveness in class. Students use the points they’ve earned over time from the program to redeem assorted items from the store, from toys, to stickers, loose-leaf binders, or even snacks. Perfect Attendance Award Ceremonies were likewise held at school in appreciation for one’s daily presence.

Connecting Community and Campus

Tzu Chi volunteers additionally encouraged high school students to apply for Tzu Chi’s scholarships. And as time went on, Tzu Chi expanded beyond schools and into the wider community, organizing free dental clinics, supporting distributions in community food banks, and organizing winter clothing donations. Before the twice-monthly food bank distributions, Tzu Chi volunteers also prepared breakfast with their own funds for local community volunteers who assisted in food distributions. They established a deep friendship with local volunteers through these breakfast meetings and even inspired a few local community volunteers to become Tzu Chi volunteers.

Tzu Chi volunteers invite local high school students to participate in a Tzu Chi scholarship briefing, and Tzu Chi volunteer, Liu Wenting, explains the conditions and methods for applying. Photo/Xiuru Xie
On December 14, 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers borrow the space provided by the food bank at Costano School to hold a free dental clinic, providing 75 treatments. Photo/Guoan Jiang

The East Palo Alto Food Bank distribution method transforms into a drive-through distribution to uphold proper social distancing during the pandemic. Photo/Lu Wanjie

Uninterrupted Love

When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States in 2020, Tzu Chi volunteers supplied masks and supplies for various institutions, and became acquainted with more families in East Palo Alto. In particular, families who were affected financially by the pandemic, who’d faced infection, and who urgently required access to essentials. 

Tzu Chi volunteers donate masks to the Ravenswood City School District. Student Affairs Minister Cindy Chin accepts the donation on behalf of the school district. Photo/Xiuru Xie, Weng Xiuyu

In addition to printing leaflets to be distributed to families in the community through the help of the school, Tzu Chi volunteers also used the East Palo Alto community Facebook page and other channels to increase awareness for Tzu Chi’s assistance. Tzu Chi volunteer Xiuru Xie, who was in charge of the event planning, said that approximately 500 families had come to the food bank to collect food in the past month. During that time last year when the pandemic was especially severe, approximately 600 families required the food bank’s services. As such, Tzu Chi accelerated its pace, and aimed to design ways to help more families as soon as possible. Since Tzu Chi volunteers had been helping with the food bank in the school district, families were pleased to see Tzu Chi volunteers upon picking up the food at the community food bank.

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Tzu Chi immediately launches an emergency COVID-19 relief program, printing leaflets through the school district’s help to assist families impacted by the pandemic. Photo/Xiuru Xie
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A Ravenswood City School District parent receives Tzu Chi’s emergency relief flyers from the school and visits the East Palo Alto Food Bank for help. Giselle (second from left), a local high school student at the time, graciously assists with Spanish translation. Photo/Lijuan Chen

Seeing that the pandemic was becoming more and more severe, Tzu Chi volunteers obtained information from families in need of resources. Because Tzu Chi had been deeply involved in the school district’s Happy Campus Program for ten years, the school district felt comfortable providing the necessary information to Tzu Chi upon obtaining permission from families.

Providing Timely Care

Among the households helped was that of Linda, who tested positive for COVID-19 twice in just six months. She first tested positive around Christmas, and was hospitalized for several days due to the severity of her condition. She was quarantined to recuperate and was temporarily unable to work. After learning about Linda’s situation, Tzu Chi volunteers gave her direct financial relief, care packages containing cleaning and disinfectant supplies, and warm clothing.

After experiencing her first positive COVID-19 case, Linda’s condition had been serious, and she was hospitalized for several days. The school district referred Tzu Chi for a visit, and Tzu Chi volunteer Weng Xiuyu provides emergency relief funds, supplies, and winter clothes. Photo/Xiuru Xie

After providing their care, Tzu Chi volunteers visited Linda every so often. In April, Tzu Chi volunteers saw her name once again on the list sent by the school district, as she’d experienced COVID-19 a second time in just six months. The volunteers immediately contacted her to learn the situation. It turned out that she had already made an appointment to get a vaccine, but she was infected again right before. Fortunately, there was no need to be hospitalized this time, but she was suffering physically, and since she was quarantined at home, there was a shortage of daily necessities. Volunteers immediately provided their assistance. Unable to offer her gratitude in person, Linda posted a note on the door sincerely thanking the volunteers. During the first visit, Linda stated that she was very grateful to the Tzu Chi volunteers because she worked so hard, but no one cared for her like Tzu Chi volunteers did. The experience truly moved her heart.

Unable to express her gratitude in person, Linda posts a note on the door to express her sincere thanks. Photo/Xiuyu Weng
After recovering, Linda returns to the food bank in June to personally thank Tzu Chi volunteers Xie Xiuru and Weng Xiuyu. Photo/Lu Wanjie

Kindness and Support Motivates the Future

English was not the primary language spoken at home for many local families, and good fortune brought local volunteers together with Tzu Chi.

One volunteer translator was Giselle Barragan. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the volunteers were unable to make home visits, and Giselle provided valuable help during phone check-ups.

Fluent in Spanish and English, Giselle Barragan helps Tzu Chi volunteers with translation during COVID-19 relief efforts. Photo/Xiuru Xie

Giselle comes from a single-parent family. Her father passed away in a car accident three months before she was born. At that time, her parents had just moved to the United States, and life was very challenging. There were four children in the family. When her mother was pregnant with her, she was a triplet, but one of Giselle’s sisters had passed away due to illness.  

Giselle’s mother worked as a cleaner, and Giselle always used her spare time to help her. Meanwhile, she was also very motivated to do well in school, and was rarely absent in the past four years while working at the food bank. When students in the eleventh and twelfth grades were about to apply for college, volunteers with children who also planned on applying inquired about Giselle’s progress, SAT scores, and preparation of college application materials. Upon hearing that Giselle struggled with her school-borrowed computer in preparing for applications, volunteers crowdsourced and bought her a laptop in the hopes of making her application process a little easier. When they found out that Giselle could only acquire eight university application waivers, volunteers helped Giselle with the application fees for other schools so she could apply to more schools and get into her ideal university.

Tzu Chi volunteers give Giselle a laptop to help her prepare for college. Photo/Lijuan Chen, Xiuru Xie

After the list was released, Giselle chose to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Tzu Chi volunteers and local volunteers were overjoyed for her and helped organize a celebration to thank her for her dedication to the food bank and to Tzu Chi during the past four years. Hearts full of love and gratitude, they wished her the best of luck on her path to medical school and becoming a kind and caring doctor.

After getting accepted to Berkeley, Giselle shares the good news with Tzu Chi volunteers, and Tzu Chi volunteers Weng Xiuyu and Liu Wenting joyfully congratulate her. Photo/Xiuru Xie

The celebration was held in the school cafeteria where the food bank was located. The volunteers prepared gifts for her, some being the daily necessities needed by the university, which could be used immediately, and another included photos of Giselle serving alongside volunteers at the food bank. Giselle expressed appreciation for the gifts that contained so many memories, and said that as long as she comes home during the holidays, she will go to the food bank to see everyone and continue to help the community.

Tzu Chi volunteers organize a celebration for Giselle, congratulating her on her admission to Berkeley and thanking her for her dedication. Photo/Lu Wanjie
Gifts and warm blessings abound. Photo/Lu Wanjie

Tzu Chi volunteers make three posters that include wonderful memories through the years. Photo/Lu Wanjie

Giselle’s mother is moved by the love of everyone present. Photo/Lu Wanjie
At the end of the celebration, Tzu Chi volunteers, local residents, Giselle, and her mother, happily take a group photo. Photo/Lu Wanjie

Promoting Education with Love

In the first six months after graduation, Giselle has already begun to carry forward what she learned with volunteers. She handed over the role to twin sisters Guadalupe and Maria, who were about to enter the twelfth grade. They will be responsible for registration at the food bank, and their bilingual skills can help many families in the community.

Twins Guadalupe and Maria will be a wonderful help at the local food bank. Photo/Xiuru Xie

Tzu Chi volunteers were happy to see more and more young people willing to serve their communities, and continued to accompany these future leaders with the hope that they, too, can attend their ideal universities, and do their best for their communities.  

Tzu Chi volunteer Leslie Shieh said that in the future, Tzu Chi will use the East Palo Alto food bank as a starting point to expand the scope of in-depth community services, and assist more families.

Jaliyah Smith was admitted early by Clark Atlanta University and is one of this year’s Tzu Chi Scholarship winners. She admires Master Cheng Yen very much. Therefore, Tzu Chi volunteer Xiuyu Weng gives her an English autobiography of Master Cheng Yen and a book of Jing Si aphorisms in four languages. Photo/Xiuru Xie 

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