Joining Forces to Help Hispanic Communities in Austin, Texas

Southern  |  April 16, 2021
Latino community leader Gloria Pennington (third left) and Alicia Perez Hodge (fourth left), Vice President of League of United Latin American Citizens, receive masks for Austin’s Hispanic communities from Tzu Chi USA’s Austin Service Center. Photo/Tsangbin Wen

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

In June 2020, Gloria Pennington, a Latino community leader in Austin, Texas, wanted to help her local League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) office procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for the community. She took the initiative to contact a volunteer from Tzu Chi USA Southern Region’s Austin Service Center to seek a donation and received an ample supply for distribution in Hispanic communities. 

That is when the connection between Tzu Chi USA and LULAC was born and it continues until now. On February 27, 2021, after Texas suffered a historic snow storm of the century, Tzu Chi volunteers from the Austin Service Center collaborated with LULAC to provide and distribute 10,000 masks in the Latino community.

Connecting With the Latin American Community in Texas

Gloria Pennington, who has devoted her life to end ethnic discrimination against Latinos in the United States, is active in the political parties of Austin, Texas. She is also an engaged member of the Latino community herself and currently focuses on working for and with the elderly. She has also been involved in relations between the United States and Mexico for a long time and actively participates in urban affairs to speak out for underserved communities. All this combined led to her initiating a connection with Tzu Chi USA during the pandemic.

When they arrive at Tzu Chi USA’s Austin Service Center, a volunteer greets Gloria Pennington (left) and Alicia Perez Hodge (middle), in Spanish. Photo/Tsangbin Wen

When the COVID-19 pandemic had just started in 2020, Gloria was abiding by stay-at-home directives like most people, yet she still kept the needs of underserved members of Austin’s  Latino communities in mind. Worried that some low-income households don’t have face masks for personal protection, she contacted Betty Pu, one of whose friends is a Tzu Chi volunteer, and asked how to obtain PPE for the community.

When Tsangbin Wen, Director of Tzu Chi USA Southern Region’s Austin Service Center, learned of this need from Betty, he immediately decided to donate 1,000 masks. On June 23, 2020, Gloria’s friend Alicia Perez Hodge, Vice President of LULAC, came to the service center to pick up the medical masks, establishing the start of a relationship between Tzu Chi USA and the Latino community in Austin.

Because of this donation, word spread within Latino communities in Texas about Tzu Chi USA and its activities and aid during the pandemic. This community awareness led to another contribution of PPE. On July 17, 2020, the Austin Service Center provided 2,000 medical masks to the Hispanic Contractors Association De Tejas (HCAT) to help protect Hispanic construction workers in Texas.

At the beginning of 2021, after the pandemic had already lasted a year, Tzu Chi volunteer Tsangbin Wen was concerned if Latino communities may need additional PPE and advised Betty Pu to get back in touch with Gloria Pennington to inquire. Thanks to their initiative, they learned that UpLift US, a non-profit national network resource group, needed PPE for an upcoming large-scale distribution event for Latin American and African American residents in Austin. 

Consequently, Tzu Chi USA’s Austin Service Center volunteers decided to support the event by donating 10,000 medical masks. The volunteers planned to pack 500 envelopes for distribution, intending to give 20 masks per household. Then, most unexpectedly, just as they were preparing the supplies, a historic and devastating winter storm was about to hit Texas.

A Historic Snow Storm Ravages Texas

On February 15, unprecedented and dangerously cold weather gripped the state of Texas, leading to widespread and prolonged power outages, water service loss, and more …

The day before the cold front descended, the weather in Austin was humid as usual. Volunteer Tsangbin Wen hurried to the Austin Service Center to pick up and load five boxes of masks into his vehicle, then deliver them to volunteers Fanlan Hsieh and Betty Pu. They would help package the masks for distribution. 

After Tsangbin had delivered the masks to his fellow volunteers’ homes, the temperature began dropping gradually. Soon, a thick cover of snow and ice had blanketed the trees and roads, transforming the city of Austin, with its typically tropical climate, into a full-blown winter wonderland that would last for more than a week.

The power and water outages caused by the cold would quickly affect millions of Texas residents who were caught completely unprepared, leaving them gravely endangered, panicked, and feeling utterly helpless. Fanlan Hsieh and her husband, both retired, were essentially trapped at home as the snow storm and its aftermath ran its course. 

And yet, while they kept tabs on the news during the state-wide crisis, the couple kept themselves busy by packaging the medical masks, a task that also helped them remain calm despite the severe weather outside. Alarmingly, even after the cold front would pass and the ice and snow had melted, the disaster was not over for many as homes and businesses faced issues of broken water pipes, water shortages, and ongoing power losses. Thus, it was hardly surprising that UpLift US postponed their distribution plans, which would proceed once it was possible.

Solidarity in the Aftermath of the Storm

On February 26, the weather had significantly improved. In the morning, a team of six volunteers, including Tsangbin Wen and Betty Pu, gathered at Tzu Chi USA’s Austin Service Center to welcome Alicia Perez Hodge from LULAC, who was to deliver the supply of donated masks to UpLift US.

Volunteers help Alicia Perez Hodge, from LULAC, load the PPE supplies donated by Tzu Chi USA into her car. Photo/Tsangbin Wen

The volunteers only expected Alicia to come by and pick up the supplies, but Gloria Pennington came as well. The pandemic forced the postponement of many of her activities, and she had been staying home for some time. However, the donation of medical masks to help underserved Austin residents inspired her to step out, wanting to reconnect with Tzu Chi volunteers and the compassion and unconditional love they represent and uphold.

As soon as Gloria emerged from her car, she immediately walked over to exchange greetings with the Tzu Chi volunteers on site. She felt it was essential to come to the service center in the spirit of solidarity among those striving to help underserved and underprivileged Austin communities and repeatedly expressed her gratitude to Tzu Chi USA for providing PPE.

This time, the volunteers also prepared a box of Tzu Chi Journals in Spanish that they hoped would reach people along with the donated masks and inspire their hearts as they informed them about Tzu Chi’s many charitable missions across the U.S. and globally.

Alicia Perez Hodge (first left) delivers the masks donated by Tzu Chi USA to UpLift US in Austin. Photo/Paul Saldana
UpLift US in Austin receives 10,000 masks donated by Tzu Chi USA, and the staff sends back a group photo as a form of thanks. Photo/Paul Saldana

Gloria and Alicia delivered the PPE and magazines to UpLift US without delay, ensuring their distribution on February 27, the very next day, to those in need at five separate locations in Austin. Tzu Chi’s donated medical masks would join other vital supplies donated by other organizations, such as bleach, disinfectant, diapers, bottled water, and food. All combined, the provided goods would surely be of significant and timely benefit to the families and individuals who would receive them in the aftermath of the storm.

Volunteers from UpLift US package the donated supplies prior to distribution across Austin. Photo/Paul Saldana
Uplift US in Austin prepares to transport the donated supplies to five distribution sites. Photo/Paul Saldana

Back at the Austin Service Center, the volunteers cherished some time spent together, having seized the opportunity to help those in need in the city. Although everyone keeps in touch during the pandemic through daily prayers online, a virtual gathering hardly compares with meeting in person. Seeing that everyone was safe after the severe and unparalleled winter storm was also a shared blessing and reason to give thanks.

All in all, this mission was a true expression of community solidarity in times of crisis and need. May such joint ventures flourish nationwide as we move forward and recover from disasters, and eventually, this pandemic that grips the world.

The beauty of people lies in their virtue; it is displayed through their good deeds, good words, and good heart.

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