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Easing the Strain of COVID-19 in San Francisco’s Happy Community

Northwest  |  July 7, 2020
Tzu Chi USA’s Happy Campus Program volunteers continue offering love and care to families and school staff in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point community during the pandemic. Photo / Roxanne Buchwitz

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Our school cooperates with Tzu Chi to help undocumented students’ families and let them know that school is a trustworthy place. They can choose to tell us their challenges with peace of mind, and we can find a way to resolve the problems together. Thanks to Tzu Chi, we’ve been providing continuous assistance to the community.

Jeremy Hilinski - Principal, Bret Harte Elementary School San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)

Jeremy Hilinski, the principal of Bret Harte Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area, knows the volunteers with Tzu Chi USA’s Happy Campus Program quite well and often expresses his thanks for their help in answering the needs of the most vulnerable members of his community. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the nation in 2020, Hilinski would have further reason to be grateful, as their aid remained uninterrupted.

Responding to the Crisis

San Francisco has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic since March, which is when students stopped going to school. This turn of events created a significant disadvantage for undocumented families in Bayview-Hunters Point, in the Bay Area. The fact of the matter is that many students in this neighborhood rely on school lunches to resolve their daily food consumption needs, and this essential support had ceased abruptly.

Fortunately, care for the community did not end as these unpredictable changes began to take their toll on its most vulnerable residents. During the stay-at-home order, Bret Harte Elementary provided free grocery bags at the school every Monday and Wednesday. Tzu Chi USA’s Happy Community volunteers participated in this distribution every Wednesday to offer their services and care to those in need.

When community residents come to get free grocery bags at the school, Tzu Chi volunteers also give them cloth masks. A mother immediately put a mask on her daughter. Photo / Lulu Lin

And so, although the pandemic continued to disrupt daily lives, the school staff, Tzu Chi USA volunteers, and the community residents who came to Bret Hart Elementary School could reunite as usual, while maintaining social distancing, of course. For many, it was an opportunity to connect with old friends, as Tzu Chi’s presence here goes back quite a few years.

Tzu Chi Volunteers Are Like Family

Many consider Bayview-Hunters Point to be one of the least safe neighborhoods in the southeastern corner of San Francisco. And yet, Tzu Chi volunteers have been serving this community since 2009. They started by donating books to schools within the district as a means of supporting education from a young age. Then, to encourage children to go to school, they began donating uniforms for students at Bret Harte Elementary School.

For more than ten years, Tzu Chi San Francisco volunteers took on one project at a time, supporting perfect attendance, then providing after school math tutoring and humanistic culture classes. And through the introduction of local schools, the volunteers initiated care for underserved families in need, including regular home visits, and the donation of daily essentials as well as furniture and other household items.

After years of a deeply rooted relationship within the community, Tzu Chi volunteers have earned the trust of local schools and area residents. And when the pandemic struck, their supportive activities and presence here persisted, as it would with family members. They remained as busy as ever, helping at schools and around the neighborhood since they genuinely care about the wellbeing of students and families affected by this global crisis.

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver cloth masks to the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point and promote vegetarianism to help avert such pandemics. Photo / Lulu Lin

Bringing Love and Care From House to House

Since pandemic spread across the nation in March, Tzu Chi volunteers have been in active contact with four schools in the Bayview-Hunters Point area. They aim to provide immediate aid, especially to households with single parents who have tested positive for COVID-19, and those in which family members are undocumented or unemployed due to the outbreak.

By May, Tzu Chi San Francisco had assisted a total of 19 households, including four with family members who tested positive for the virus, 11 with undocumented members, and four with unemployed single mothers.

As is always the case with individual care offered household by household, each family had a story to share, and a host of troubles to bear, many a direct result of the pandemic, which had claimed the lives of loved ones in some homes.

In one household, an undocumented 28-year-old mother had died due to the coronavirus, leaving her husband to care for their six-year-old son on his own. Tzu Chi volunteers provided immediate relief with a cash card for $800. The aid could cover part of the funeral expenses and support the family’s needs while an aunt temporarily stepped in to help care for the anguished boy who had just lost his mother.

Principal Hilinski also referred Tzu Chi volunteers Roxanne Buchwitz and Lulu Lin to the home of a Bret Harte Elementary School student from a low-income family, whose mother had been on dialysis for many years and had limited mobility. Volunteers delivered essential supplies and a cash card for food to help the mother of two meet the family’s needs while staying home.

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver essential supplies and a cash card to a student’s home to alleviate the family’s challenges in getting food on the table. Photo / Roxanne Buchwitz

In another home, the parent of a student had recently recovered from COVID-19. However, one night soon after, this African American father of two died due to a sudden heart attack. On May 6, Tzu Chi volunteers went to Bret Harte Elementary School on a Wednesday, as they usually do, and found out about this tragedy. Without delay, they prepared a cash card for the family to help them in overcoming some immediate problems.

A young Hispanic mother whose family member had passed away due to COVID-19 also came to the school with her child. Tzu Chi volunteers provided a cash card and offered moral support, then gave the mother and child cloth masks, hoping that the soft and comfortable protective masks will help ease some of their stress during these tough times.

A young Hispanic mother, who had come to the school with her child, receives a cash card to help her through the difficulties caused by the pandemic. Photo / Lulu Lin

For volunteer Roxanne Buchwitz, Tzu Chi’s aid is vital in the short term, yet also farsighted in aim: “Tzu Chi volunteers give love to families in need during the pandemic, in the hopes to see students return to school happy and healthy after the summer vacation.”

A Team Flourishing Over the Years

Narda Harrigan is an advisor at Bret Harte Elementary School, who has been at this school for 34 years and understands the community and students’ families. She and Tzu Chi volunteers have been collaborating for more than ten years, their interactions becoming like those between family. Eventually, she joined the community of local Tzu Chi volunteers a few years ago, and now everyone is working hard as one team, striving to build a “happy community” while caring for students and families in need.

Deepening the bond with Tzu Chi volunteers, Narda even visited the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan two years ago, where she drew further inspiration from Tzu Chi’s holistic and kindhearted vision, which she brings to her work at the school.

I pray that everyone can successfully overcome the pandemic, treat everyone with kindness, and live a safe and healthy life.

Narda Harrigan - Elementary Advisor, Bret Harte Elementary School
Narda Harrigan, an advisor at Bret Harte Elementary School, has been with the school for 34 years and now joins Tzu Chi volunteers in serving the community. Photo / Lulu Lin

Another staff member with whom Tzu Chi volunteers have developed close ties is Merita Kaulave, who has been at Bret Harte Elementary School for more than 20 years and is currently serving as Beacon Director for its after-school programs.

Merita also joins Tzu Chi volunteers in serving the community and visited the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan two years ago. Whenever she sees Tzu Chi volunteers Roxanne and Lulu appear on campus, she greets them like family, often expressing her gratitude anew.

I’m so glad that you’ve returned to offer care for the students and the community, especially the undocumented households. We’re truly a blessed community because of your love and support.

Merita Kaulave - Beacon Director, Bret Harte Elementary School
Merita Kaulave has served at Bret Harte Elementary School for over 20 years and now joins Tzu Chi volunteers in aiding the community. Photo / Lulu Lin

At this time, we need every bit of love and support, so Tzu Chi volunteers brought their handmade cloth masks not only for the families of students but also for the school staff.

Principal Hilinski points at his mask, saying, "This handmade Tzu Chi cloth mask is essential to keep us safe." Photo / Lulu Lin

For Principal Jeremy Hilinski, the most crucial task for the school at this critical time is to help the community overcome the pandemic together. And yet, he acknowledged that it’s challenging to make sure that everyone can get the protection they deserve, adding that “wearing Tzu Chi’s cloth masks is an essential safety measure.”

Promoting Vegetarianism Together

The connection between Merita Kaulave’s family and Tzu Chi develops further each year. Merita and her husband are devout Christians, with a family of eight children. Four years ago, the Kaulave family and many members from their church joined Tzu Chi in serving the community.

However, the support goes both ways, as while the family now actively participates in Tzu Chi’s missions, Tzu Chi volunteers are also there to foster the family’s most cherished aspirations. With encouragement from Tzu Chi volunteers, Mr. Kaulave completed Christian ministry courses and became a church pastor ten months ago. He now joyfully preaches and spreads the love of God.

On their part, the Kaulave family collaborates with Tzu Chi volunteers to promote vegetarianism in the community. Their joint advocacy has extended beyond the school environment, reaching homeless shelters in the area as well. Every month, the Kaulave family and Tzu Chi volunteers will buy vegetarian groceries from a food bank, then prepare 120 grocery bags that they will give to a local homeless shelter to help people in need.

Joseph Kaulave, one of the couple’s sons, is also a staff member at Bret Harte Elementary School. After he and his family became local Tzu Chi volunteers in the community, he became vegan, gradually being influenced by the reasoning behind Tzu Chi’s promotion of vegetarianism and veganism, which is rooted in environmental protection, kindness to animals, and protection against zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.

During the pandemic, Joseph participates in the food distributions for students and families in the community. When volunteers brought handmade cloth masks for school staff and neighborhood residents, Joseph saw that they came packaged with a card advocating the adoption of veggie dining. He immediately began wholeheartedly encouraging those receiving the masks to join in, “I hope everyone can start a vegetarian diet. A vow to be a vegan will bring an end to the spread of the coronavirus as soon as possible.”

As Joseph Kaulave distributes Tzu Chi’s cloth masks, with emotion, he encourages everyone to adopt a vegetarian diet as a means to combat the coronavirus. Photo / Lulu Lin

The School Cafeteria at the Heart of Community Care

As the food distributions at Bret Harte Elementary continued during the pandemic, the school cafeteria indeed became the heart of community care in Bayview-Hunters Point, and many pitched in to help. Among them, was A-Chen, a Chinese-speaking Bret Harte Elementary School staff member who works in the cafeteria.

A-Chen has maintained a friendship with Tzu Chi volunteers for many years, and donates to Tzu Chi each month, wanting to help people in need around the world. During the pandemic, every Monday and Wednesday, she works alongside other cafeteria staff members to prepare at least 350 grocery bags. Each large paper bag contains a three-day supply of fruit, vegetables, and dry goods for three meals per day.

Tzu Chi volunteers made sure A-Chen and other cafeteria staff were adequately equipped with personal protection, offering them Tzu Chi’s handmade cloth masks. As A-Chen prepared the food bags, continuing her dedicated service to the community, she modestly expressed her gratitude to the volunteers, “Thank you for being here.”

From school staff to Tzu Chi volunteers, everyone was of one heart at the cafeteria, in their wish to be of support to the community at this difficult time. And in turn, this heart of service can lead to much more:

A healthy mental attitude is vital to good health, which in turn leads to a happy and fulfilling life.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

A Harmonious and Happy Community

A school isn’t just a place for students to learn, but also a place where their families and community residents can receive assistance and support. In starting the Happy Campus Program in collaboration with local schools in Bayview-Hunters Point, Tzu Chi volunteers brought that vision and neighborly spirit to life.

The Happy Campus initiatives gradually evolved into the Happy Community Program of today. And now, even during a pandemic, the families of students, school staff, community residents, and Tzu Chi volunteers in Bayview-Hunters Point continually unite to work together harmoniously, love and support each other, and cooperate to move forward and be of benefit to those in need.

Join hands with Tzu Chi USA to support long-running community programs such as this, providing vital assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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