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Distributing Love and Hope at Baldwin Park High School

National Headquarters  |  August 10, 2020
Volunteers quickly placed food into trunks via a drive-through distribution method. Photo by Mandy Lo.

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

On July 17, 2020, Tzu Chi USA held a grocery distribution at Baldwin Park High School in California, where volunteers quickly and efficiently placed food into the trunks of their beneficiaries via a drive-through distribution method.

“A large percentage of our students come from low-income families.” Gilberto Rodriguez, the Principal of Baldwin Park High School, spoke with heartfelt emotion as he described the plight of his young students. “During the pandemic, some students and their families were forced out of their homes when they couldn’t pay the rent. Now, more families have become homeless, and some have been temporarily sheltered at local motels through the county’s Social Services.” The school visits the neighborhood motels every Tuesday to deliver groceries to the families of students.

On the morning of July 17th, Tzu Chi volunteers gathered at Baldwin Park High School to pack the food into bags in advance for the distribution. Photo by Mandy Lo.
This was Tzu Chi’s first collaboration with Baldwin Park High School. Principal Gilberto Rodriguez (right) spoke with volunteers to learn more about the distribution. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Helping Students From Low-Income Households

Baldwin Park is located in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County, California. As of statistics from 2019, the city of Baldwin Park has a population of approximately 75,251, where 74% of the community is Hispanic or Latino, and 14% of the population lives in poverty. The proportion of low-income households with an annual income of less than $50,000 is close to 40%, and thus, locals have faced significant hurdles during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are 1,700 students at our high school; 95% of the students came from low-income households, of which, 150 students are registered as homeless. As the pandemic continues, more and more families in the community are facing financial distress,” said Josefina Steinmetz, the Assistant Principal. The school urgently needed 50 bags of food for struggling families, and submitted a request to the school district. Then, the Los Angeles County Office of Education referred it to Tzu Chi USA. After Tzu Chi volunteers conducted an assessment on July 13th, they decided to distribute 100 bags of food.

James Chen, the head of Tzu Chi’s San Gabriel Valley Service Center (second right), met with Josefina Steinmetz, Assistant Principal of Baldwin Park High School (first left), and Cristina Quiroz, the Program Specialist of Baldwin Park Unified School District (second left), to discuss the distribution. Photo by Mandy Lo
Food items prepared by Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters for struggling families from Baldwin Park High School. Photo by Wesley Tsai.

Cristina Quiroz, the Program Specialist of the Community Schools Initiative from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, described the immediate need for food for families. Maria Pera, the 211 LA County Outreach Coordinator, recommended Tzu Chi USA because she knew Tzu Chi could provide the 50 sets of food immediately. And indeed, when Cristina contacted Tzu Chi, volunteers took direct action. Within a week, volunteers had decided to hold a food distribution for the families in need at the high school.

Forging Lasting Friendships After the Woolsey Fire

Back then [2018], after the Woolsey Fire, Tzu Chi volunteers quickly mobilized and provided assistance to the survivors, which left a deep impression in my mind. I saw you [Tzu Chi] again in June at Huntington Park City with an organized distribution, so when I learned that a school in Los Angeles County was in urgent need of food, I immediately thought of Tzu Chi.

Maria Pera, Outreach Coordinator for 211 LA County
Maria Pera, the outreach coordinator of 211 LA County, remembered the aid provided by Tzu Chi volunteers after the 2018 Woolsey Fire. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
Volunteers give blessings to the families who come to pick up the food at the distribution. Photo by Mandy Lo.

The thought of having left such a deep impression after helping survivors of the 2018 Woolsey fire sincerely touched the hearts of Tzu Chi volunteers. After receiving the urgent request from the LA County Office of Education, Tzu Chi volunteers went on-site to conduct their assessment and gain a better understanding of the needs of the community. Once completed, volunteers began preparing the necessary paperwork and purchases for the food distribution.

This first food distribution was geared toward the families of students at Baldwin Park High School. James Chen, the head of Tzu Chi USA’s San Gabriel Valley Service Center said, however, that while this may be the first distribution, he would propose a possible food distribution on a monthly basis in which volunteers can provide up to 500 food packages for those in need.

The Pandemic Changed Everything

Tzu Chi volunteers confirm a beneficiary’s information who came to pick up groceries. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Sonia Valencia, a single mother, worries about the cost of living as the pandemic persists. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Sonia Valencia, a single mother, explained that her income has lessened significantly due to the reduction in her working hours. First, she has to decide whether she can afford to pay for necessary expenses such as rent and bills, and then she and her family halt all unnecessary purchases to reduce expenses. Her family mindfully followed stay-at-home measures to avoid infection and protect those around them. Their living expenses, however, have increased compared to last year, and life has become quite hard for them.

Ada Martin is a former dental assistant. She used to have a well-paying job, but is now unemployed due to the closure of the dental clinic. Although she still has an income, it’s far less than she requires to cover the expenses for four people at home.

Ada Martin, a dental assistant who lost her job due to the pandemic, struggles to make ends meet. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Juan Cadena's income was reduced drastically. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Juan Cadena came to the food distribution to help feed his family of four. He can’t make ends meet because he’s the only one making an income. Due to the pandemic, his working hours have been reduced as well, and thus, his income has been more than cut in half.

Putting Food on the Table

Michael Saunders worked in security at Baldwin Park Unified School District for two and a half years, and helped make sure the food distribution was safe and secure for everyone. Soon after witnessing Tzu Chi volunteers moving the heavy boxes of food supplies, he took the initiative to help with the distribution as well.

Compassion is inspired from within; blessings are created through action.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Michael Sanders, the school security guard (front), helps Tzu Chi volunteers load food into a vehicle. Photo by Wesley Tsai.
Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters organized an urgent food distribution within one week after receiving the request for food support at Baldwin Park High School. Photo by Luo Shuli.

Michael Sanders told us that the community is in great need of assistance. Although it’s their summer break, the school district continues to distribute breakfast and lunch to the students from Monday to Friday because many families can’t afford the cost of nutritious meals. Michael additionally assists the school district with food distributions by going to the motel that accommodates homeless community members every Tuesday, as many students from his school were placed there — and their families can’t afford to buy food.

At the end of May, California reopened some business sectors due to economic concerns. However, the number of confirmed cases surged in early July. This prompted California to announce the closure of these business sectors once more. Many people feel the uncertainty of when the next reopening will happen quite keenly, but know how important it is to stay safe and end the pandemic. The hearts of community members ache and nerves are frayed, but Tzu Chi volunteers shall continue to take careful, positive action, and reassure families that we’re here for them.

After the distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers and school staff gathered to take a group photo. Photo by Mandy Lo.

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