Uniting in New Orleans to Provide Food Staples After Hurricane Ida

Southern  |  November 2, 2021
Volunteers prepare bags of rice for the day’s distribution. Photo/Jong Wu

Written by Roger Lin 
Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

On September 29, 2021, Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Regional Office received a message from the American Red Cross, forwarded by another Tzu Chi volunteer named Debra, requesting assistance. 

The Vietnamese Seniors of Westbank LA is a non-profit organization that provides care and support for Vietnamese seniors in the New Orleans area. However, due to food shortages brought about by Hurricane Ida, paired with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, the non-profit was experiencing difficulties obtaining some important food staples. 

Though the American Red Cross had provided crucial emergency provisions, residents were having trouble adapting to the western food. Accordingly, the American Red Cross contacted Tzu Chi. Interim CEO Roger Lin immediately reached out to the non-profit’s president, Mr. Toan Nguyen to learn how best they could serve the people they cared for. Mr. Nguyen told Roger that their traditional diet includes jasmine rice and red beans, but because of the hurricane and the pandemic, 700 families were having difficulty obtaining these two essential food items. Roger then contacted several wholesalers in the Houston area. The first company expressed that they had neither item in stock due to the hindered supply chain. The second company had 50 lbs of packaged jasmine rice, but could only supply 100 bags due to the global supply chain issue. 

Mr. Nguyen had requested 25-pound bags of rice, as it would be easier for people to carry and easier to distribute. While volunteers searched for additional suppliers, they also asked Mr. Nguyen to contact community churches, temples, and other organizations to gather the names of more people who might need support. There were privacy concerns regarding releasing personal information, however, so volunteers needed to rethink the concern. At the same time, volunteers made contact with a large rice supplier in New Orleans who could provide the required quantity of 700 bags of jasmine rice at $20.50 per bag, but it would take two weeks for the shipment to arrive. After plans were made, volunteers contacted Mr. Nguyen to discuss the name list and agreed upon a list that contained the fundamentals. And thus, the distribution date was set for October 23, 2021. When the company supplying the rice learned how the food would be donated to help the community, it voluntarily offered Tzu Chi a discounted price of $18.50 per bag.

 On October 18, several volunteers met at Tzu Chi’s local office to plan and prepare for the distribution, deciding to distribute masks as well. Due to the travel distance between Houston and New Orleans, volunteers would be staying overnight in a hotel. Therefore, detailed plans were carefully arranged to ensure everyone’s safety and a smooth event.

 On October 22, 2021, ten volunteers met at Tzu Chi’s Southern Regional Office in Houston again at 1:00 PM, and after a short briefing, departed the office for the six-hour journey to New Orleans. Volunteers arrived at Wyndham Garden hotel at approximately 10 PM to rest for the night, and arrived at the distribution site in Gretna at 9:00 AM. 

Seven hundred bags of rice on pellets were delivered the day before and had been carefully wrapped to keep them safe and secure from the elements. Volunteers immediately set to work and spoke to people who had arrived early for the distribution.  

At 9:45 AM, Mr. Toan Nguyen took the stage to introduce the event and express his appreciation for Tzu Chi and the American Red Cross, which provided several hundred bags of red beans for this distribution. He also presented a beautifully framed token of appreciation displaying Tzu Chi Southern Region’s past community relief activities. Mr. Toan Nguyen is 82 years of age, and is stepping down as president of the organization after this event to take care of his wife, who will undergo heart surgery soon. 

Volunteers expressed their gratitude and sincerely wished him and his wife the very best. He told volunteers that he is proud of what he has done at the Vietnamese Seniors of Westbank LA for the past 10 years. And indeed, the organization has been helping local seniors by serving hot meals for more than 100 people daily. They also conducted health fairs and administered flu shots for seniors every year until the pandemic occurred. He said this distribution was the largest event the organization ever had.

Mr. Toan Nguyen introduces the event. Photo/Jong Wu
Mr. Toan Nguyen presents a framed token of his appreciation to Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Jong Wu

At 10:00 AM, distributions officially began. Volunteers loaded rice and beans into the trunks of care recipients’ vehicles, and handed out masks with heartfelt blessings.

Volunteers load rice and beans into the trunks of care recipients’ vehicles and hand out masks with heartfelt blessings. Photo/Jong Wu

One of the local volunteers helping at the distribution was Erold Lesperance, a Haitian pastor who teaches French at a local charter school, the International School of Louisiana. His church is currently helping Haiti by collecting supply donations and sending them to Haiti via Florida. He and his church members also help provide food for refugee families, and brought distributed rice from this event to his church.

Mr. Erold Lesperance generously helps carry boxes of red beans from the American Red Cross to the parking lot. Photo/Jong Wu

Another local volunteer, Phong “Robert” Nguyen, is helping the Vietnamese fishing community in Empire, LA, rebuild. Many families there have returned home to begin the rebuilding process, but because of labor and material shortages, they could not repair their homes or boats just yet. He said that during Katrina, more than 3,000 fishing boats were damaged. This year, far fewer were damaged. He felt fortunate that Hurricane Ida did not create as many challenges for their livelihoods, even if their homes did face damages. Thus, he came to pick up 110 bags of rice to be taken to Empire for distribution. More recipients of the donated rice included members of a local Thai Buddhist temple.

Mr. Robert Nguyen loads his truck with 110 bags of rice to distribute to families in Empire, LA. Photo/Jong Wu
Rice is distributed to Empire, LA, residents. Photo/Courtesy of Toan Nguyen
Rice is given to a local Thai Buddhist temple. Photo/Courtesy of Beatrice Pham

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