A Journey Bringing PPE to California’s Agricultural Regions

Northwest  |  June 24, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteers deliver masks for staff and students at Rancho
Tzu Chi volunteers deliver masks for staff and students at Rancho Cielo, a learning and social services center for underserved and disconnected youth facing challenges for success. Photo by Judy Liao.

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

The drive from San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley to Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, located in Salinas, Monterey County, is scenic. There is much to enjoy, first along Santa Cruz Hwy 17, with tall trees lining both sides of the state highway, then the gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean along Cabrillo Hwy 1, which hugs the coastline. Finally, one can feast one’s eyes on the vast fields of lush farmland as one approaches the destination.

And yet, Tzu Chi volunteers Chijen Huang, Judy Liao, and Joy Chen didn’t stop on the way to take in the views, as they were on a mission to deliver supplies of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) to multiple institutions near Salinas, with stops in Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County, on the way. And, on June 4, 2020, they had headed out from West San Jose in the early morning.

The team from Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region was on a tight schedule to complete the delivery of several boxes of supplies loaded in their vehicle, comprising medical masks and Tzu Chi cloth masks in the foundation’s signature navy blue color. The volunteers were anxious to complete the distributions in the two major agricultural cities in Southern California within the day.

Will You Come Back to Watsonville?

As the volunteers drove into Watsonville, a small town they were familiar with because Tzu Chi volunteers have been caring for farmworkers and low-income households in the area for 20 years. Every year, in December right before Christmas, Tzu Chi volunteers along with teachers and students from Tzu Chi Cupertino Academy will also come here to enjoy a celebration with these families.

Appreciation for Tzu Chi’s long-term assistance and care in the area culminated in the City of Watsonville’s acknowledgement of Tzu Chi’s contributions through the designation of December 9, 2018 as Tzu Chi Day.

In 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading across the nation, Tzu Chi volunteer Judy Liao contacted the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department to ask if they needed masks as preventive measures for community health and safety. Adriana Flores, the department’s contact, was so moved and happy to receive this call because they were indeed looking for masks, which are hard to find.

During the conversation, Adriana also relayed that the police and fire departments in Watsonville lacked masks too. After multiple communications with the various City of Watsonville departments, Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region volunteers assessed their needs and determined what to donate.

Subsequently, on June 4, a team of Tzu Chi USA volunteers delivered 400 medical masks and 60 cloth masks to the City of Watsonville’s Parks and Community Services Department; 500 medical masks, 100 KN95 masks and 100 cloth masks to the Police Department; and 400 medical masks, 100 KN95 masks, 50 cloth masks, six pairs of goggles and ten face shields to the Fire Department.

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver PPE for City of Watsonville staff and first responders with the Watsonville Police Department and Fire Department. Photo by Judy Liao.
Tzu Chi volunteer Joy Chen (left) and Adriana Flores (right), from the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department, count the items in Tzu Chi USA's donation of PPE. Photo by Judy Liao.

Rudy Lopez Sr., the City of Watsonville Fire Chief, has served in the Watsonville Fire Station for 27 years. As he accepted Tzu Chi USA’s donation of PPE, Chief Lopez expressed sincere gratitude for the precious medical supplies since they are in short supply at the fire department, and their arrival in such a timely manner will be of great support to firefighters as they serve the community.

When Chief Lopez learned that Tzu Chi volunteers and the City of Watsonville had collaborated in various activities for the past 20 years, he was thankful for Tzu Chi USA’s care for his community. He was glad to learn more about the foundation and its missions and hoped to have the opportunity to continue working together on future initiatives.

Tzu Chi volunteer Chijen Huang (right) introduces Jing Si rice to Chief Rudy Lopez Sr. (left) of the Watsonville Fire Department. Photo by Judy Liao.

During the pandemic, first responders such as firefighters and police officers must continue their duties. Thanks to the PPE donated by Tzu Chi USA, they will now be able to serve the community with greater peace of mind. While delivering the supplies to the Watsonville Police Department, volunteers also shared more about Tzu Chi and its aid in the United States and internationally.

Tzu Chi Volunteer Joy Chen (left) introduces Tzu Chi and its missions to an officer of the Watsonville Police Department. Photo by Judy Liao.

After they had completed the deliveries of PPE, the Tzu Chi team had a conversation with Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department staff, who shared their concerns about how to help the many farmworkers and their families who are part of this community. Most are from underserved Hispanic households with unstable income sources, in which family members depend on work in the fields just to put food on the table.

Due to COVID-19, the future is filled with uncertainty everywhere, and everyone’s confidence about tomorrow has lessened in 2020. And yet, some groups have been more gravely impacted than others. This crisis has disproportionately diminished the financial well-being of farmworkers, and many urgently lack basic essentials for daily living.

Before the volunteers said their goodbyes, Adriana Flores asked with some concern, “Will you come back?” The volunteers replied without hesitation, “Yes! We’ll be back.”
The team reassured the city that Tzu Chi will continue to care for these families and formulate action plans for forthcoming aid.

Helping Protect Students and Staff at Rancho Cielo

After leaving Watsonville, Tzu Chi volunteers Chijen Huang and Judy Liao continued on the PPE distribution journey. After half an hour, they arrived in Salinas, located eight miles from the Pacific Ocean and at the mouth of the Salinas Valley, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” This California agricultural region grows and exports flowers, fruit, and vegetables for people across the United States.

The Salinas Valley is known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” with endless scenery of fields that grow flowers, fruit, and vegetables for people nationwide. Photo by Judy Liao.

Their destination was Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, a comprehensive learning and social services center for underserved and disconnected youth in Monterey County. The school, established in 2000, has been providing vocational training and diploma education for young people facing challenges for two decades.

Rancho Cielo was temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the administration recently announced it was reopening the campus. However, to maintain everyone’s health and safety, the school must provide a sufficient number of masks to teachers, staff, and more than a hundred students. Tzu Chi’s donation of masks was arriving just at the right time, thanks to the intervention of Alejandrina Vigil, a local dentist.

Alejandrina Vigil is a volunteer with Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) and has participated in Tzu Chi’s medical outreaches for the past three years. When she saw on Facebook that Rancho Cielo Youth Campus was searching for medical masks, which are so hard to find these days, she referred Tzu Chi’s support to the school.

When Tzu Chi volunteers Chijen Huang and Judy Liao arrived in Salinas on June 4, Alejandrina, her husband Jorge Vigil, who serves at the local police department, and one of his colleagues, joined them for the delivery of PPE to Rancho Cielo. The donation of these essential supplies, 250 medical and 450 cloth masks, is sure to alleviate some of the school’s concerns about protecting everyone on campus as it reopens.

Rancho Cielo Youth Campus posts a thank you message for the donation of masks on their Facebook page. Photo by Judy Liao.

While accepting the donation, Jadrian Clausen, Executive Assistant at Rancho Cielo, shared the school’s mission and current events. Tzu Chi volunteers also seized the opportunity to share Tzu Chi’s areas of service in neighboring communities and across the nation.

Alejandrina Vigil (left) and her husband, Jorge Vigil (third left), participate in Tzu Chi’s delivery of masks to Rancho Cielo, where Jadrian Clausen (right) accepts the donation on behalf of the school. Photo by Judy Liao.

Representatives of the two non-profit organizations that strive to support underserved populations had a beneficial opportunity to meet thanks to this donation of PPE – another beautiful connection between those who serve and care for people at risk or in need.

Through the referral of Alejandrina and her husband Jorge Vigil, who is with the Parole Division, Tzu Chi USA also donated PPE for the Salinas Police Department on the same day. They delivered 100 medical masks, 130 KN95 masks, and ten cloth masks for Service Unit One; and 250 medical masks, 75 KN95 masks, and ten cloth masks for Service Unit Two.

Parole Agent Jorge Vigil (right) accepts Tzu Chi’s donation of masks on behalf of the Salinas Police Department. Photo by Judy Liao.

Community Support Extends the Reach of Tzu Chi’s Aid

During the pandemic, Alejandrina Vigil assisted Tzu Chi volunteers in contacting various institutions in need in her community of Salinas and Monterey County and provided timely support in getting the requested masks to the organizations. As a result of her efforts, volunteers also brought 1,500 medical masks and 120 cloth masks for the staff at the Food Bank of Monterey County.

Alejandrina Vigil’s assistance in contacting various institutions in her community helps Tzu Chi volunteers offer timely support by providing requested PPE. Photo by Judy Liao.

Alejandrina felt honored to join the Tzu Chi team and also to be able to give back to her community. Her daughter followed her mother’s footsteps and is now a dentist as well. Alejandrina hopes that after the pandemic, she and her daughter can volunteer at Tzu Chi’s local medical outreach events together.

We’ll Be Back

Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region end their delivery mission for the day and head towards home, north to San Jose. Photo by Judy Liao.

Their delivery mission completed, Chijen Huang and Judy Liao set off on their return journey back home. As they drove north towards San Jose, they passed beautiful green and golden fields along the way. They saw many farmworkers toiling under the scorching sun, wiping the sweat off their brows from time to time, then continuing their harvesting steadily.

Chijen and Judy acknowledged the diligence of these hard-working farmers, striving to earn enough to feed their families, then remembered what Adriana Flores had asked worriedly when they parted in Watsonville, “Will you come back?” As if responding to the silent calls of the farmworkers they passed, gathering encouragement from the perseverance of their efforts, the volunteers answered in their hearts, “We’ll be back.”

By adding your love, you can support missions such as these. Together, we can make a difference at these challenging times. We’re all in this together.

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