Offering Food and a Helping Hand in Brentwood, Long Island

Northeast  |  July 16, 2020
Cars are lined up even two hours in advance, the drivers waiting for the food distribution to start. Photo / Jupiter Chiou.

Written by Iris Chiou
Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact is clearly visible in the amount of food Tzu Chi USA is giving out in the New York metropolitan area. The situation in Brentwood, a small town on the south side of Long Island, illustrates how numerous communities in the region are being affected by this crisis.

Many families in Brentwood are recent immigrants, often with an uncertain permanent residency status. There may be multiple families living under one roof, so if one person contracts the virus, everyone is at risk. Further aggravating the challenges these households face, given recent business shutdowns or closures, job opportunities have been reduced or lost entirely.

Consequently, Tzu Chi volunteers learned that the amount of food being provided at distributions offered by a church in Brentwood had doubled or tripled. To gain a deeper understanding of what is needed here, volunteers began conducting home visits to access the level and type of care and support that should be made available.

Needing Food Is a Common Thread

It’s 7:00 in the morning, and already one can see local residents in their cars lined up outside Saint Anne’s R.C. Church waiting for the food distribution to start. Many have arrived this early because they’re afraid they won’t receive any food otherwise.

Cars are lined up even two hours in advance, the drivers waiting for the food distribution to start. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

The first in line is a gentleman and his neighbor. Having no income, the man and his family of three have relied on the church’s weekly food assistance for over three months. When he found out Tzu Chi would distribute fresh produce twice a month starting in June, he worried that the quantity would be limited. And so, here he was, two hours early, waiting for the start of the distribution at 9:00 AM.

About 90% of these families are recent immigrants from Latin America, many with a sensitive residency status, who only pick up temporary work here and there to support their families. Due to the pandemic, they now face gravely reduced chances of finding gainful employment, so for many, their only means of obtaining food at the moment is the weekly distribution provided by St. Anne’s R.C. Church.

Sonia, a petite lady at the wheel of a big old car, has five children. “The youngest is not yet one year old,” she shares in broken English, adding, “I haven’t worked for a long time. Their father just went back to work recently. The food from the church can help.”

Tzu Chi volunteers distribute boxes of vegetables and fruit to help local residents feed their families during the pandemic. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

Some of the people who came to the distribution had walked 20-30 minutes to get here and pick up food. Young mothers arrived on foot with children in baby carriages. Norna, a grandmother in her fifties, living with her daughter and grandson, has had no income since March. The family was barely making ends meet with their meager savings. Although they have no car and must walk, they still didn’t want to miss the weekly food distribution.

From the sampling of residents who came, it was clear that many had recently lost employment due to the pandemic, significantly increasing the necessity of receiving free food. Accompanied by a few church volunteers, Reverend Stanislaw Wadowski, Pastor at St. Anne’s, packed and carried boxes of food up and down the stairs from the basement at a steady pace. Sweaty and exhausted, Father Stan shared that there were too many people needing help right now, but the church didn’t have enough volunteers.

The church has been distributing food here for many years. Originally, St. Anne’s provided food distributions three times per week. However, by April, they had changed the program to once a week as they no longer had a sufficient amount of food to give away. In the past, at the most, 60-70 people would show up for a distribution: They had never seen more than 300 coming to get food, as they were witnessing now during the pandemic.

From 500 people a month to 2,000 people in April, to nearly 5,000 people in May, we don’t have enough volunteers and resources to meet the demand. Fortunately, Tzu Chi volunteers are here and really help us a lot.

Tzu Chi USA’s Long Island branch has been working with Saint Anne’s Church for over a decade offering regular hot meals distributions and health fairs. When the pandemic started, Tzu Chi began to provide masks and other resources in April. Since June, Tzu Chi has also provided fresh produce every two weeks at the church’s food distributions.

Tzu Chi volunteer Lilian Kuo explains that the church generally provides canned food, rice, bread, or other non-perishable food. At the same time, Tzu Chi supplements these supplies with fresh produce like onions, carrots, lettuce, and fruit. The aim is not only to enhance what the church offers but also to encourage everyone to eat more vegetables and less meat.

We have been helping each other like family, and it became even more precious during the pandemic. People get to know Tzu Chi through these distributions, learn about vegetarianism and environmental protection, and arouse their sense of gratitude.

Volunteers carry boxes of fresh produce to the distribution area where they will give them to families in need of food. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

Delving Deeper to Understand the Range of Needs

In addition to the food distributions at the church, Tzu Chi volunteers, alongside those from St. Anne’s, also delivered produce directly to families in need and conducted home visits to understand the support they may require fully.

Volunteers conduct home visits to understand better what families in the area may need. Photo / Pinhau Chiou
Volunteers deliver a food package to Maria, a Brentwood resident. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

During a day of home visits, Tzu Chi volunteers and a social worker met Maria, a Brentwood resident, when they brought her a box of fresh produce. As a volunteer put the box in Maria’s hands, she appeared to be in pain. The volunteers found out that this 54-year-old lady has suffered from knee and back pain for several years due to her job.

Although Maria lost her employment during the pandemic, her immigration status does not allow her to receive any government benefits. The household’s financial security is also affected by the fact that one of Maria’s two children is still in college, while the other just graduated and has a minimal income.

“She cannot work for a while, so she’s been borrowing money, but this cannot go on forever.” Volunteer Anna Flores explained regarding Maria’s situation. Anna is a social worker from the non-profit Make the Road New York, which specializes in helping new immigrants from Latin America.

When Anna was still in college, she had participated in Tzu Chi Collegiate Association activities and therefore knew about Tzu Chi’s work and missions. Since Maria can’t apply for any government aid or disability benefits, Anna referred her case to Tzu Chi.

I cannot forget her worried face. Maria has been in pain for three years, and we really cannot help her. When I felt hopeless, I remembered Tzu Chi, an organization that had given me care and support during college. I feel that Tzu Chi must be able to do something for her.

After the food distribution at Saint Anne’s was over that day, the volunteers had come to visit Maria for the first time. However, this would not be the only time they came.

We Will Be Back

Sure enough, following that first visit to Maria’s home, Tzu Chi volunteer Lilian Kuo returned on June 27 and brought Joe Chang along. Joe is a physical therapist and member of Tzu Chi International Medical Association’s New York chapter, and could perhaps help Maria manage her chronic pain issues.

“Can your leg do this? Are you in pain here?” Joe Chang asked as he patiently examined Maria and discovered that the pain originated from nerves in her lower spine, extending to her inner thighs, then knees. Just the minor lifting of a leg caused her to cry out in pain.

Joe Chang (left) kneels on the ground as he prepares to examine Maria’s knee. Photo / Pinhau Chiou
Joe Chang carefully examines Maria’s back and mobility as he considers ways to treat her ailment. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

Joe sighed, “She’s been in pain for a long time; it’s really hard to see.” He then taught Maria some simple rehab movements. Maria’s younger son was also on hand to help translate and learn to assist his mother when she does the therapy.

Later, Joe asked to see the house and the bathroom. He observed that the toilet seat in the bathroom was too low, putting too much pressure on Maria’s knees and causing more damage. Joe immediately went to his car and brought a toilet safety seat to install in the bathroom. Before leaving, Joe also demonstrated the correct way of using the safety seat and repeatedly reminded Maria not to sit on a too soft sofa in the hope that her condition would improve.

Joe Chang prepares to install a toilet safety seat in Maria’s bathroom. Using it will help reduce her back and knee pain. Photo / Pinhau Chiou
Joe Chang shows Maria how to properly use the toilet safety seat he just gave her and installed in her home. Photo / Pinhau Chiou

What we can do to help her is limited. We just do our best to provide her the right way to rehabilitate so her quality of living can improve. We hope the pandemic will end soon so her family will have a stable income and job.

That day, the team of volunteers also visited two other families who were recent immigrants without legal status. Because of the pandemic, they lost their jobs and could not receive any government relief. Overcoming the challenges of assisting these families is a pressing issue. Tzu Chi volunteers will continue to conduct home visits to provide actual assistance and spiritual support.

We’re all in this together. Please add your love so that efforts like these can continue to support vulnerable families suffering due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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