Tzu Chi NY Resumes Food Distributions as Reopening in Stages Proceeds

Northeast  | September 22, 2020
As businesses gradually begin to reopen, the Tzu Chi New York office resumes distributions of fruit and vegetables for those in need. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

Written by Iris Chiou
Translated by Julienne Chi
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

The spread of COVID-19 in New York has slowly been brought under control since the outbreak first descended upon the nation in March 2020; however, problems stemming from people’s livelihoods having been affected persist. The pandemic’s economic fallout has gravely impacted many low-income individuals’ work situation and prospects, and daily life.

When businesses were allowed to reopen in stages, Tzu Chi USA’s New York office also resumed its weekly distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables to community members in need. Besides giving out groceries outside the branch office, volunteers also deliver food to seniors living alone or unable to come to the distributions. 

Caring for Seniors Living Alone

“Aunty” Wang, who’s in her eighties and lives alone, occasionally sits in front of her house and watches the vehicles pass by. Although she’s very eager to go out, she can’t step out of her yard; “My feet can’t walk very well. I fell in the backyard last time.”

Aunty Wang lost full function of her feet due to a stroke two years ago. Her staggering steps not only leave her unable to move properly but also render her life even more difficult during the pandemic. The inability to go out prohibits her from going to the supermarket to buy food and daily necessities. At this time, Tzu Chi volunteers bringing groceries to her house is crucial.

Seniors living alone need extra support during the pandemic, as going out to buy necessities isn’t safe for some, and even impossible for others. In Aunty Wang’s case, due to mobility issues, she is confined to her home. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

Tzu Chi volunteers, wife and husband San San and Eric Chiang, routinely drive around the greater New York City area to deliver fruits and vegetables to the homes of seniors living alone. Aunty Wang is one of their care recipients, and when she knows that volunteers are coming to visit her, she waits for them eagerly inside her home.

On one visit, the volunteers asked, “How have you been lately, Aunty Wang?” “I feel bad that you have to come all this way,” she replied, but she was also feeling joyful that they came. In addition to bringing her a bagful of rice and vegetables, San San didn’t forget to ask Aunty Wang about her current situation. The volunteer’s heartwarming care brought a big smile to her face.

Once a week, San San Chiang personally delivers fruits and vegetables to Aunty Wang’s home. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

San San Chiang shared that Aunty Wang, who has been a neighbor of Tzu Chi volunteer Ashley Ho for over 30 years, is also a long-time Tzu Chi supporter. Every year, she knits numerous scarves to donate during Tzu Chi USA’s winter distribution events, helping many underprivileged families.

A few years ago, Aunty Wang’s husband passed away, and she later suffered a stroke while living alone in her home. Two of her children reside in Taiwan, while her youngest son works in the city and usually visits her weekly, but hasn’t been able to do so regularly due to the pandemic.

Aunty Wang uses her knitting skills to help the underprivileged and support Tzu Chi USA’s winter distributions. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

Many seniors living alone in the U.S. are quite independent, but the uncertainties of the pandemic have caused fear in their hearts. These are the people that Tzu Chi volunteers need to help and care for the most.

San San Chiang, Tzu Chi Volunteer

Expanding Their Love to the Community

Since the outbreak in March, San San and Eric Chiang have been busier than ever. “Just about every day we head out around 9 AM and return around 5 or 6 PM. I originally thought I would be more relaxed after retiring; I didn’t think I would be busier than when I was teaching classes.” Eric Chiang said with a smile, as he searched for the next delivery address.

Tzu Chi volunteers San San and Eric are both over 60 years old. Still, after witnessing the circumstances of many older adults living alone and vulnerable families, regardless of the severity of the pandemic, they both put on masks, wear protective gear, and personally deliver food supplies to those in need. “This is our mission!” Eric explains, smiling broadly.

Then, his grin fades as he takes a deep breath and shares, “Our children aren’t letting us visit with our grandchildren anymore as they’re worried that we’re running around and may bring the virus home, but if we don’t do this, who will?”

When you think of the elderly people living alone or the vulnerable families, scared and starving in their homes, all we’re sacrificing is some time spent with our family, which is not much. I am grateful that I can still be of service during this time!

Eric Chiang, Tzu Chi Volunteer
Eric Chiang and his wife San San have taken on the responsibility of delivering food to seniors and vulnerable families. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

When they return home after the grocery deliveries, the retired couple will say hello to their cute little granddaughter from outside the window. This brief encounter is their greatest consolation after a tiring day. To reassure the family, they also remove their clothing outside the side door to be laundered immediately and then take a shower washing from head to toe.

San San shares, “I’m a retired nurse and have seen life and death throughout my work. Maybe because having worked in the medical field, I’m not afraid to face illnesses; as long as I’m well protected, I can complete my mission with peace of mind.”

San San Chiang says hello to their granddaughter from outside the window, keeping a safe social distance. Photo / Courtesy of San San Chiang
During the pandemic, to prevent bringing the virus to their family, San San Chiang and her husband Eric stay behind closed doors while celebrating their granddaughter’s birthday. Photo / Courtesy of San San Chiang

While some Tzu Chi volunteers, like San San and Eric Chiang, deliver food supplies directly to the homes of seniors and other vulnerable families, back at the Tzu Chi New York office, others are distributing the supplies from there.

Resuming Distributions of Fruit and Vegetables

Following the phased reopening of businesses at the end of May, the Tzu Chi New York office resumed its weekly distributions of fruit and vegetables on Fridays, starting on June 12.

Since businesses are just beginning to reopen, there are still a lot of people with no income. Consequently, the number of people receiving fruits and vegetables increased compared to before the pandemic. Also, to ensure the implementation of pandemic preventive measures, the method of distribution was adjusted accordingly.

As distributions of fruits and vegetables resume, care recipients are assigned different time slots to pick up the food to prevent excessive crowds. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

On distribution days, already at 9 AM, many people will be lined up, often under the blazing sun, waiting to get a number for the queue. Tzu Chi volunteers patiently instruct each person to register while reminding them of their pick-up time. This measure of issuing numbers for the line prevents a crowd from gathering and disperses care recipients to different time slots.

In the parking lot, volunteers fill cartons and boxes with portions of fruit and vegetables to achieve zero-use of plastic bags. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

“Number 143, come with me,” says volunteer Teresa Fang as she guides a care recipient while appeasing their fear that supplies will run out, and they won’t be able to get the food. Teresa has been in charge of guiding care recipients since the distributions restarted on June 12. 

Recalling that first day, she reluctantly said, “ The scene that day was like a pier crowded with people waiting to be rescued, fearing that they won’t be able to get a seat on the rescue boat.”

The pandemic has caused prices to rise. Many have not resumed work and have no income. A box of fruit and vegetables can feed a family for several meals. Seeing such a situation, as a Tzu Chi volunteer, we must face them with compassion and patience.

Teresa Fang, Tzu Chi Volunteer
Volunteer Teresa Fang (center, holding a pen) is primarily in charge of registration and guidance, while also appeasing care recipients as they wait. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

At 10 AM, volunteers begin the distribution work. Instead of allowing care recipients to come inside the office to pick up as in the past, volunteers take baskets of fruits and vegetables to the sidewalk for recipients to pick up there, thus minimizing indoor contact.

To avoid contact indoors, volunteers bring the fruits and vegetables outside and assist with packaging them for care recipients, as we see volunteer Suchen Chang (center) doing here. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

People are unemployed due to the impact of the pandemic, resulting in a reduction of their income. Therefore, the distribution of fruit and vegetables is even more critical, significantly reducing their economic pressure. In the first three months since the pandemic began, 522 Tzu Chi volunteers took part in distributing 3,624 portions of food.

Asian merchant wholesalers provide fresh fruits and vegetables for distribution free of charge; Tzu Chi volunteers are then responsible for sorting and giving them out. Photo / Jupiter Chiou

The pandemic is far from over, and we’ll continue to face complex economic and livelihood issues. Tzu Chi USA hopes to reach 500,000 people; with each person donating at least $10, we can raise $5 million for mid- to long-term disaster relief, helping deliver essential supplies to those most in need. As long as we have the resolve and the faith, we can do it!

Love awakens compassion and dissipates fear. Let’s join forces! Help empower us with the resources to do more. Please add your love to Tzu Chi USA’s Together While Apart campaign.

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