Hurricane Ian Relief Reveals Tzu Chi’s Seeds of Care in Florida Blossoming

Southern  |  November 2, 2022
Five years after Hurricane Irma in 2017 volunteers return for the Hurricane Ian relief mission in 2022
Five years after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the first disaster aid distribution in Collier County, Florida, Tzu Chi volunteers return for the Hurricane Ian relief mission in 2022. Photo/Youbin Huang

Written by Xiuling Zhang, Daphne Liu
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Tzu Chi USA first brought disaster relief to Collier County, Florida, after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Then, in September 2022, Hurricane Ian struck southwestern Florida again, and Tzu Chi volunteers returned to the area to provide aid. With the bonds formed here five years ago and the help of Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor, the Tzu Chi team could quickly complete a disaster assessment and other preparations for several Hurricane Ian relief distributions. Tzu Chi USA held its fourth distribution at the Naples Botanical Garden on October 23.


The most touching part of this event in Naples was that more than 30 local residents showed up as community volunteers to help distribute aid supplies. As of October 23, Tzu Chi has assisted 1,073 families in the Hurricane Ian relief effort, benefiting 3,467 survivors and distributing a total of $966,100 in cash cards, in addition to Tzu Chi eco-blankets and household supplies.

Tzu Chi volunteers keep care recipients in the waiting area entertained

During the Hurricane Ian disaster relief distribution in Naples, Florida, on October 23, 2022, Tzu Chi volunteers keep care recipients in the waiting area entertained with an activity introducing Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Spreading the Love

“What is true friendship? When you need help, they show up, and that’s Tzu Chi.” In a ceremony before the distribution, Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor introduced Tzu Chi volunteers to everyone, saying, “Thank you for coming, thank you for your gifts and friendship, and for teaching us what friendship is, what love is, and to remember to spread the love!”

Taylor recounted that when Tzu Chi volunteers came to Collier County five years ago bringing Hurricane Irma disaster relief, she felt deeply moved by their selflessness. Thus, to express the County’s gratitude to Tzu Chi and honor and nurture the example set by the volunteers of helping others in their time of need, the Collier County Commission decided in 2017 that October 10 of each year shall be “Tzu Chi Day.” The date coincides with Taiwan National Day. 

Just as Taylor always remembers the good deeds of Tzu Chi, the volunteers are grateful for her help in completing preparations for the Hurricane Ian distributions in a short time, which included a preliminary disaster assessment. On October 18, the Tzu Chi USA disaster relief team was assessing damages in Florida’s hardest-hit areas; Taylor immediately joined them on a three-hour trip through flooding-impacted regions to see how she could assist the aid process. 

With Tzu Chi’s example of social service through volunteerism already rooted in Collier County, many community volunteers showed up to lend a helping hand during the distribution on October 23. Volunteers from two non-profit organizations, Pickleball For All and Freedom Waters Foundation, came together to assist Tzu Chi in compiling survivors’ data and speeding up the relief preparations. Considering the transportation difficulties of some survivors, local organizations also hired buses to transport them to the distribution site.

Eager to Serve

During the ceremony before the distribution, the community volunteers and Hurricane Ian survivors watched footage of Tzu Chi’s relief efforts worldwide. Many of them wept, planting seeds of goodness in their hearts. Then, once the distribution began, all the community volunteers eagerly did their part.

Volunteers guide the survivors to hold each other's hands
Volunteers guide the survivors to hold each other's hands and feel the power of love and support as one family. Photo/Youbin Huang

Barry Schmalbach, who is preparing to move to Fort Myers, wasn’t affected by Hurricane Ian. Still, after hearing from his colleagues that Tzu Chi was to provide disaster relief in the community, he came to the distribution site to donate and volunteer, helping to distribute supplies such as eco-blankets.

Your organization is outstanding; you not only provide aid but also warm the hearts of the survivors. The volunteers are helping others with their hearts, not by taking donations, but by using the money to help the survivors in need.

Barry Schmalbach with Yuanliang Lin and Frank Chen Fag and
Barry Schmalbach (middle), who made a donation and volunteered to help, poses for a group photo with Yuanliang Ling, Tzu Chi USA Central Region Dallas Executive Director (left) and Frank Chen Fa, Tzu Chi USA Greater Washington DC Region Executive Director (right).

Alice Garra, a Tzu Chi Youth Group volunteer from Miami, grew up attending Tzu Chi Academy Miami and was often moved by the stories and videos about Tzu Chi disaster relief missions shared by her teachers. She also volunteered at Tzu Chi and local youth events. When she learned that Tzu Chi was conducting a Hurricane Ian relief distribution, she volunteered and asked the principal of her school for the opportunity to participate. 

I was so moved that I had to hold back my tears, especially when I saw the survivors and the volunteers become one and perform the ‘One Family’ sign language song, with the survivors smiling happily.

As Alice recalled her feelings during the distribution, she could no longer hide her tears.

Alice Garra
Alice Garra (middle), a teenager from Miami, comes to volunteer at the distribution. Photo/Daphne Liu

Tony Escobar, a Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Miami Service Center community volunteer, took a bus to the distribution site with the team leaving at 4:30 AM. He then assisted the survivors by answering questions in Spanish and translating. 

When I was in college more than ten years ago, my professor was a Tzu Chi volunteer, and he encouraged me to participate in Tzu Chi when I was at a time full of worries. Along the way, my vision has become broader, and my mind has become different.

Tony looks back on his volunteer journey with wonder, “It’s incredible that what I gave in the past has eventually come back to me! Volunteering for Tzu Chi and other organizations has given me the opportunity to learn many valuable lessons to avoid making mistakes. [People] would come up to help me when I face challenges in life. I always get more out of volunteering!”

Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Miami Service Center
Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Miami Service Center volunteer Tony Escobar (center standing) finds volunteering to be extremely rewarding in many ways. Photo/Youbin Huang

Boosting Recovery With Heart

Our volunteers’ loving and caring dedication has touched even more Collier County residents in 2022, those coming into contact with Tzu Chi for the first time. Loretta Grantham, a journalist for 35 years, said she often reports on charity events but has never met an organization that is so considerate as to take into account the survivors’ needs and personally distribute relief supplies the way Tzu Chi volunteers do. 

In fact, local residents are often helped by different charities, whether it’s checks, meals, or other charitable activities, but they have never experienced a group that provides one-on-one care and comfort like Tzu Chi.

they offer supplies such as eco-blankets
Tzu Chi volunteers impress the disaster survivors with their genuinely warm attitude as they offer supplies such as eco-blankets. Photo/Youbin Huang

During the event, Tzu Chi volunteers read a letter from Tzu Chi founder Master Cheng Yen to Kenneth Williams, a survivor with limited mobility, letting him feel her love and care. He was moved and said that he already got something more precious than financial aid since volunteers had shared the story of Tzu Chi and the bamboo bank spirit while he was waiting in line at the entrance, and that was the most uplifting gift he had ever received.

volunteers attentively assist Kenneth Williams
Tzu Chi volunteers attentively assist Kenneth Williams who has limited mobility. Photo/Youbin Huang

Helen Rodriguez, from Venezuela, shared that she lost her house and her cousin in 1997 due to flooding in her homeland. She was determined to evacuate her family when Hurricane Ian hit, urging all her friends and family to leave as a matter of safety. After the hurricane, flooding damaged her family’s rented mobile home, and what’s worse was that the landlord served them a notice to terminate the lease due to the need to renovate the house. Now, members of the family take turns going to work while others look for a new home. Still, Helen remains upbeat: 

When we immigrated from Venezuela to the United States, we had nothing. The hurricane damaged everything in our home, but luckily my family is safe, and that’s all that matters. If we could start from scratch before, we should be able to do the same now. I believe that if we work hard, there is hope, and we are still young, we can do it!

Cynthia Schultz has lived in the area for more than 20 years and came to the distribution as a volunteer from the Freedom Waters Foundation. When a Tzu Chi volunteer asked if a bamboo bank beside her was hers or if one of the disaster survivors might have left it behind, she quickly replied, “It’s mine. Can I take one more for my family? Will this make people think I’m greedy?”

Tzu Chi Community volunteer Cynthia Schultz (front row, third right) and her friends learn some sign language gestures. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Many people at the distributions felt inspired by the concept of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank. While Cynthia wanted to take another home so more people could join the movement of regular giving, others were glad to donate when Tzu Chi volunteers brought bamboo banks around, sharing the philosophy and history behind them.

Many disaster survivors waiting in line
Many disaster survivors waiting in line respond to the spirit of Tzu Chi by putting their spare change into a bamboo bank. Photo/Youbin Huang

Cynthia and her friends who came to volunteer inquired more about the location of Tzu Chi service centers and offices in Florida and how to join Tzu Chi as volunteers. And that’s how the Tzu Chi spirit spreads, inviting more and more people onto the path of serving those in need, of compassion in action, and unconditional love.

A group photo of all the volunteers
A group photo of all the volunteers participating in the Hurricane Ian disaster relief distribution in Naples, Florida, on October 23. Photo/Youbin Huang

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