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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.