How Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus is Helping in East Palo Alto Through the Pandemic

Northwest  |  December 21, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteer provide care packages for East Palo alto residents through the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo/Tzu Chi Northwest Region

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Julienne Chi
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

Ten years ago, Tzu Chi Northwest’s Happy Campus program set its sights on East Palo Alto, California, a community populated with new immigrants and low-income families. Since then, Tzu Chi volunteers have kept a watchful eye out for any of its specific needs. Thus, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and personal protective equipment (PPE) were in short supply, the Happy Campus quickly sought to keep residents safe with masks.

The Happy Campus program is one in which Tzu Chi volunteers strive to holistically address the needs of low-income and underserved communities by first working with young school children. Tzu Chi volunteers first began their work in East Palo Alto by collaborating with the school district to begin Tzu Chi’s life skills classes, which work to reinforce and empower students’ emotional and interpersonal toolbox – giving them lessons about gratitude, respect and love that they can use for life.

The program next expanded into assistance for students’ families and guiding high schoolers towards college scholarships via Tzu Chi USA’s scholarship program. Then, in 2018, volunteers expanded Happy Campus’ assistance into the community by hosting free medical outreaches, participating in bi-monthly food distributions in tandem with the local food bank, and donating winter clothing. In fact, before every food distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers would even use their own funds to prepare a group breakfast for the local volunteers who’d volunteer for the day at the distribution. Socializing this way and spending time to serve the community together helped create stronger friendships between Tzu Chi volunteers and the East Palo Alto community.

Sadly, the community’s situation has worsened through the pandemic. When California issued the stay-at-home orders in March, many were left unemployed or with significantly reduced income. As a result, requests for food assistance increased 200% to 300%, depending on the week. During the pandemic, food distributions were ramped up to provide nourishment to over 600 families once a week on Saturday mornings. But, with such a surge in residents arriving, safety measures to reduce risk of infection had to be taken. 

When services began increasing, the local food bank did not have enough PPE to provide to its volunteers in East Palo Alto. Laura, a resident who had helped with the food distributions for many years and who became a Tzu Chi volunteer in 2019, immediately reached out to the Happy Campus volunteers to ask for help, hoping to receive a supply of masks to protect their fellow volunteers.

Receiving her urgent request, Tzu Chi volunteers went to great lengths to procure the PPE they needed. They were able to secure 300 medical masks from Tzu Chi Northwest’s Regional office to meet this end. Upon handing these masks out, they found that school staff, too, would need support with PPE.

Though schools had been closed at the same time, kitchens at the school were still operational. Since many students in the area relied on free school lunches, cafeteria staff had been busy preparing take-home meals for students’ families to pick up. The initial mask donation would be divided between school staff and food distribution volunteers. Homemade cloth masks were provided to school district administrative employees for their daily use.

School district administrative staff accepted the 300 medical masks donated by Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Leslie Shieh

During March and April, as the pandemic began peaking, Tzu Chi volunteer Christine Liu continued to come to food distributions, despite the risk of infection. She felt deeply for the community’s suffering and the stress on the food bank. This was not a time to back down, she thought to herself. Every Saturday morning she would arrive at the food distributions, which had been converted to drive through formats.

That day, the school district superintendent, Gina, wearing a cloth mask sewn by Tzu Chi volunteers, came to visit the food bank. Many distribution volunteers thought Gina’s mask looked comfortable and asked Christine if she could provide cloth masks for them. Seeing that the local volunteers really liked the cloth masks made by Tzu Chi volunteers, Christine provided 20 Tzu Chi cloth masks for community volunteers to use. This was a time of sharing and looking out for one another.

Food distributions get converted into a drive thru format during the pandemic. Photo/Christine Liu
In May, Tzu Chi Northwest received additional masks from overseas. Tzu Chi volunteers donated another 200 of them in East Palo Alto so recipients could have an abundant supply. Photo/Christine Liu

With many huddled in their homes, food distributions have provided momentary chances to stay connected with residents, share some happiness, and show them support through tough times. Tzu Chi volunteers will continue its Happy Campus commitment in East Palo Alto for as long as help is needed.

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