Written by Penny Liu
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take root in the U.S., Tzu Chi volunteers had to pause their visits to Wharton residents who we’d befriended during our long-term Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Through the hard work of a local volunteer, Barbie Fortenberry, however, we were able to receive news and updates on their well-being despite the distance.
Tzu Chi’s Southern Region has been providing school supplies to Wharton’s low-income students since 2018, as Hurricane Harvey hit these families hard. Around the end of July, volunteers got in touch with Barbie and prepared a list of 101 students from first to twelfth grade who were in need of school supplies. After months of absence in their lives, volunteers determined that this was one thing that we could do in person. Julienne Chi and Penny Liu spent several days browsing the web, and shopping at different Walmarts and dollar stores to procure all the necessary items on the school supply lists. Then, nine volunteers went into Tzu Chi’s Houston office to carefully pack the supplies for each student on August 11th. Volunteers not only packed school supplies, but also care packages containing two bags of Jing Si noodles and two packs of Jing Si instant rice for the children’s families in the hopes that they can have a nutritious, vegetarian meal in this challenging time. The care packages also included a child-size cloth mask made by a Vietnamese volunteer, a Tzu Chi Journal, a bamboo bank, and a booklet of Jing Si Aphorisms to lift their hearts.
On the morning of August 13th, four volunteers — Julienne Chi, Penny Liu, Peter Luong, and Dr. Chingyun Suen — departed from the Tzu Chi office, with Xue Bin driving the delivery van full of school supplies and care packages to Tzu Chi’s home in Wharton: the Just Do It Now facility. Volunteers also brought 800 blue Tzu Chi cloth masks to donate to the teachers of the Wharton Independent School District (Wharton ISD).
At 9:15 AM, the volunteers arrived at the Just Do It Now gym, with Barbie greeting us at the door, and volunteers began to unload. At 10 AM, Wharton ISD superintendent, Dr. Michael O’Guin, arrived with his staff members, Bridget English and Linda Lins. Barbie and Julienne introduced Tzu Chi and described the Tzu Chi Happy Campus program we had implemented with other schools. We hope we will have the opportunity to work with the Wharton ISD schools to provide more services in the local community. Dr. O’Guin was grateful for the 800 cloth masks, and expressed interest in future projects.
Volunteers promptly began the school supply distribution. Due to the pandemic, volunteers were not able to have students gathered at the gym, so they or their parents were contacted to come during different time slots to limit the number of people congregating at once. We met several of our Hurricane Harvey long-term recovery care recipients. Volunteers learned that one care recipient’s daughter had recently passed away after a long battle fighting her severe injuries from a car accident. She was in tears as volunteers inquired after her wellbeing, and she told us that she had not been able to work full-time after her daughter’s accident so she could take care of her. Now, due to the pandemic, she can’t work at all. Our regular assistance for the past few months had helped her tremendously. We are thankful for her gratitude, and we hope she, too, will someday be able to heal after this heartbreaking loss.
A grandmother also came by to pick up supplies for her grandkids. She is one of our long-term care recipients as well. She was delighted to see us, and told us that her house is finally being fixed. Barbie’s father and her daughter, Laura, also came by to express how much they appreciated Tzu Chi’s work in Wharton.
The driver of a car passing by the JDIN gym saw Julienne outside, and stopped to ask if we had any bamboo banks to give him. It made the volunteers realize that the seeds of love they’d sown in this community after Hurricane Harvey had grown, and indeed, we will do our utmost to continue the effort.
Tzu Chi volunteers will continue to support and empower the communities we serve throughout the pandemic. You can assist us as we aid struggling families all across the nation. We’re calling for 500k donors to help us raise $5 million in charitable donations. Every dollar counts, and in these challenging times, your selfless gift of $10 can help us deliver hope to those who can’t afford to feed their families, or provide essential PPE to individuals on the frontlines. If we can inspire 500,000 people to participate, we can reach $5,000,000 in relief!