Written by Daphne Liu
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska
Every other hour, one could hear a cheer from the Tzu Chi USA Vision Mobile Clinic van parked in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. Inside, a volunteer would be holding up a pair of prescription glasses that the eye care team had just made, then presenting it to their new owner as everyone around them watched. The collective cheers that followed aptly expressed the joy and gratitude of both the giver and the care recipient.
The Sun Shone Brightly on this Special Day
New York City in late autumn and early winter begins to get chilly, and it’s rare for temperatures to reach 68°F. Yet on November 7, 2020, it was bright and sunny. Perhaps the weather was mirroring the enthusiastic warmth of the Hispanic individuals who would receive Tzu Chi USA’s care that day. That’s undoubtedly how the team felt early that morning, around 8:00 AM, as the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic vans pulled up and parked outside the Centro Civico Colombiano in Elmhurst, where they would be providing a day of vision care free of charge.
New York Supreme Court Justice Carmen R. Velasquez, a board member of Brigada de Esperanza NY, the non-profit co-hosting this medical outreach event, reminded more than 20 Hispanic volunteers who were there to help, to protect themselves, announcing, “Everyone must wear PPE gowns and masks!”
To further ensure the safety of volunteers and the public, applicants for vision care were required to pass COVID-19 testing before they came. An appointment system was also in place, whereby the clinic would serve only two cases every 30 minutes, on average, reducing the chances of too many people gathering at one time.
Justice Velasquez shared that Brigada de Esperanza NY had posted information about the event on its official Facebook page, and in just three days, over 2,900 people viewed it. The organization’s volunteers then received more than 300 calls asking about the free vision care service, hoping to register, which they could, if they met the proper criteria:
Justice Velasquez, who is the first Ecuadorian to serve as a judge for the Civil Court and Supreme Court of the State of New York, first learned about Tzu Chi in 2016, when the foundation provided extensive disaster relief following the tragic earthquake which struck her native country that year. Since then, through Brigada Esperanza NY, she has partnered with Tzu Chi to provide food distributions in New York’s Hispanic communities.
Justice Velasquez also connected Spanish-speaking community volunteers to a New York-based training program that Tzu Chi initiated, preparing them to assist during vision care outreach such as the one on November 7. On this occasion, she was thrilled to see the graduates of Tzu Chi’s three training courses finally helping for the first time as care recipients got eye exams and free prescription glasses.
Justice Velasquez took this opportunity to publicly thank Freeman Su, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region, for all the resources it had provided to make this outreach event possible, including the volunteer training program led by optometrist James Chuang. Many care recipients followed suit, thanking Tzu Chi for the free vision care, which many expressed they desperately needed.
A Gift From Heaven
“A pair of glasses costs $300 plus, which is more than my income for a week!” Alicia Degro, a single mother of four children, exclaimed. Her oldest just started college, and the youngest is only in kindergarten. When the pandemic began, her small restaurant business faced closure for months, and even now, its income is half of what it was before.
The multifocal glasses Alicia was using were severely worn, and she urgently needed a new pair with a more current prescription. However, since her insurance doesn’t cover vision care services, she couldn’t get one – that is until now. She was extremely grateful for the new glasses she got on this day, elaborating how helpful they will be not only for her but also the children:
Mavro Quintuna, a construction worker with unstable income and no medical insurance, also needed glasses. His eyesight began to deteriorate after middle age, but since he can’t afford glasses, he tried not to pay much attention to the issue. Receiving a pair from Tzu Chi truly felt like a blessing that would increase his safety on the job as well.
Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinics had previously served underprivileged students in the Greater New York area through the See 2 Succeed program. This nonprofit partnership works alongside schools to offer free eye exams and glasses for children in underserved communities. However, at this medical outreach, most of the appointments served middle-aged and elderly New York residents who needed reading glasses.
For example, Alberto Alarcon, 66 years old, was one of the care recipients and had trouble reading for many years. Since he couldn’t afford to get glasses with a prescription tailored to his vision correction needs, he relied on drugstore reading glasses.
Richard Yang, a dentist and volunteer with the New York chapter of Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), handed the new pair of glasses from Tzu Chi to Alberto, who was eager to try them immediately, marveling at the whole experience of being served by the mobile clinic.
Alberto, and all the care recipients served by Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinics, also got a bamboo bank to take home so he could contribute to helping others, activating the cycle of love.
A total of 22 pairs of new prescription glasses planted 22 seeds of goodness in the hearts of 22 Spanish-speaking New York City residents. The warmth in their hearts as they left Tzu Chi’s free medical outreach matched the glow of the autumn sun on this unseasonably mild day in November 2020.