Serving Communities in California With the Mormon Church

National Headquarters  |  December 16, 2020
Tzu Chi USA’s Orange County Service Center holds its very first food distribution in collaboration with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana, CA. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

After months of searching for a suitable venue in Orange County, Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters Region volunteers finally obtained consent from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana to hold a food distribution on their premises on August 22. 

It was their first food distribution since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and benefited 703 households. Although volunteers toiled under the scorching sun on a day with record high temperatures, they were happy to participate and help those in need.

Tzu Chi USA and the Mormon Church Collaborate for the First Time

On July 31, Tzu Chi volunteers and Jonathan Burton (third left), City of Santa Ana Councilmember Jose Solorio’s assistant, visit the premises of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana. Photo/Gina Shih

COVID-19 has disrupted lives worldwide. In the United States, schools closed as one of the preventive measures. Tzu Chi USA used to hold food distributions at schools in Santa Ana, in California’s Orange County. However, this has no longer been possible during the pandemic.

Tzu Chi volunteers preparing to resume their monthly food giveaway program in the area had to find a suitable venue large enough to accommodate a drive-through distribution method. They assessed multiple venues but couldn’t find an ideal location. Nonetheless, being aware that residents in the areas they serve desperately needed food, they persevered in their search.

Finally, in July, thanks to a referral from City of Santa Ana Councilmember Jose Solorio and his assistant Jonathan Burton, Tzu Chi volunteers got the approval from a local Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana, to hold the food distribution in their parking lot.

Volunteers direct traffic waiting in line near the food distribution area and guide vehicles forward when it’s their turn. Photo/Chifen Lin

Supporting a Community in Need

In Orange County’s Santa Ana community, Hispanics of Mexican origin are the dominant group, representing 78% of the population. The poverty rate is 19.5%, which is much higher than the average poverty rate in Orange County.

Since 2011, Tzu Chi USA’s Orange County Service Center has maintained a Happy Campus program in Santa Ana’s elementary schools to assist underprivileged families. Through it, they provide students with backpacks filled with food to take home every Friday so that they won’t go hungry on the weekends.

By 2013, Tzu Chi further extended service in the community through three medical outreach events to guard residents’ health. Tzu Chi then introduced its Mobile Food Pantry program in 2018. Regular bi-monthly distributions of fresh fruits and vegetables began, assisting with food supplies while providing tips for making healthy vegetarian meals.

All these initiatives are of significant assistance to low-income families, yet the pandemic has complicated matters for the volunteers who implement them in the community. Nevertheless, they are striving to overcome every challenge swiftly, not to interrupt these aid efforts unduly.

Providing Continuous Care

The outbreak of the pandemic began to affect the United States in mid-March. When schools were closed, Tzu Chi USA’s routine medical outreach and food distribution events at Madison Elementary School and Spurgeon Intermediate School in Santa Ana School District were all suspended. Nonetheless, Tzu Chi’s missions would not be interrupted.

During the stay-at-home period, the physicians who volunteer with Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) continued caring for patients through phone calls. They also provided prescription medicines for those with chronic diseases by mail. Additionally, although the school was closed, Tzu Chi volunteers maintained contact with the principal of Madison Elementary School, delivering food there each month for staff to distribute to families in need.

Tzu Chi volunteers return to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana on August 3, to meet the Elders of the General Authority Seventies. Photo/Gina Shih
At Tzu Chi USA Headquarters in San Dimas on August 15, volunteers prepare and repackage food for the upcoming distribution event. Photo/James Huang

To make up for distributions that can’t proceed at schools in the area while they’re closed, a team of nine volunteers from Tzu Chi Orange County Service Center went to visit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana on August 3 to explore a possible collaboration.

They met with the Elders of the General Authority Seventies and shared about Tzu Chi USA’s ongoing charity programs. Learning about these essential aid efforts, the Elders expressed their willingness to collaborate. And finally, the worry that had been on the volunteers’ minds for the past two to three months was relieved.

Without delay, Tzu Chi volunteers put the wheels in motion for a food distribution event set to take place on August 22 in the church’s parking lot, with its full support. They started to plan the event intensively, applied for distribution supplies from Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters, and mobilized volunteers to assist in pre-distribution work such as packaging the food items. And finally, everything was ready for the upcoming event.

Many Residents Are Unemployed

On August 22, the Tzu Chi volunteer team arrived at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana at 6:30 in the morning to set up for the food distribution event. It wasn’t long before a queue of residents formed near the church, everyone ready to wait patiently, just grateful that much-needed food supplies were forthcoming.

Luis Roman, who lives nearby, came at 6:40 AM. He explained that his household consists of nine people who depend on him to bring food home. He used to work at a Souplantation restaurant. Unfortunately, the chain of restaurants initially interrupted operations, then went out of business due to the pandemic. Consequently, Luis has been unemployed for five months.

Knowing that the church often holds food distributions and seeing many police cars in front of it that morning, Luis immediately stopped to ask if it’s for a food distribution event. Getting confirmation, he gladly joined the line of people waiting for it to begin.

Luis Roman, who used to work at a restaurant that went out of business due to the pandemic, has been unemployed for months and is grateful to get food for his family. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Juan Garcia, who lives in a nearby mobile home community, mentioned that in his community, several families had been diagnosed with COVID-19 infection, and the neighbor who lives next to him can’t go out because he’s under self-quarantine. Like Luis, Juan has also been unemployed since March, and his family of five depends on such community food distributions to put food on the table.

When I pick up the food at distributions, I’ll help my neighbors and pick up more food when they can’t come out to pick it up. I think it’s really important for everyone to help each other during the pandemic.

Rocio Martinez (right) and her husband German Palacios (left) come to the food distribution with their son. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Rocio Martinez and her husband, German Palacios, came to the distribution after receiving a text message from the church. During their interview, the couple said that they’re unemployed and quite anxious. They don’t know what tomorrow may bring and worry about what will happen if someone gets infected, and there’s no money for medical care. The family of three is sheltering in place but find it hard to stay home all day, so they came out together for a break.

Rocio Martinez (right) and her husband German Palacios (left) come to the food distribution with their son. Photo/Jennifer Chien
The distribution on August 22 provides supplies of fruits, vegetables, and non-perishable foods. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Each care recipient had a story to share. Juan Uribe used to work as a painter but is currently unemployed due to the pandemic. He applied for unemployment benefits and, fortunately, was approved, plus he tries to remain positive. Although life is undoubtedly challenging right now, he exclaimed happily, “At least my family’s healthy.”

Anna Cabrera, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, still works at the cafeteria in a clinic despite the pandemic’s disruptions but must supplement that income somehow. Thus, she recycles cardboard boxes. The recycled materials’ value may not seem like much, but it still brings some financial relief even at 5 cents per pound.

Joining Forces to Help

City of Santa Ana Councilmember Jose Solorio shares on social media about Tzu Chi's charity aid missions. Photo/Jennifer Chien

City of Santa Ana Councilmember Jose Solorio, and his assistant, Jonathan Burton, came to the distribution and arrived early in the morning. Solorio held up his mobile phone and did a live broadcast to share the event with the community.

The City Councilmember explained that many residents in Santa Ana are day laborers, and almost all of them are unemployed due to the pandemic. Concurrently, with the high COVID-19 cross-transmission rate in the City, residents are in great need of assistance. Solario expressed how very grateful he was that charity organizations are helping so residents won’t go hungry.

Jonathan Burton, Solario’s assistant, who was the one who referred the Mormon Church to Tzu Chi USA for a possible collaboration, shared how very happy he was to have brought the two organizations together through this event. Although they represented different religious faiths, it was wonderful that they were helping residents in the community together.

Jonathan Burton, Santa Ana City Councilmember Jose Solorio’s assistant, who referred Tzu Chi to the Mormon Church, attends the food distribution event. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Rey Rosas, an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana, came to assist during the distribution and helped volunteers carry food boxes. He explained that most families who live near the church subsist on a low-income as it is. Their hardships have gravely escalated since the pandemic began, with many household members currently unemployed and some testing positive for COVID-19. 

Consequently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints collaborates with other community organizations to distribute food almost every week. The church has nine other dioceses in Orange County as well. Rosas shared that Fullerton is another community in dire need of assistance. He hopes that Tzu Chi and the Mormon Church will continue collaborating, increasing the number of food distribution locations in the county.

Rey Rosas, an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana, puts on a Tzu Chi volunteer vest and helps with food distribution. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Apart from Tzu Chi USA and the Mormon Church’s partnership for this event, Echame La Mano Pura Vida Foundation also participated. Wilbur Salazar, the non-profit’s founder, said that he and his wife initially bought food and distributed it amongst neighbors in need. However, realizing that one or two people’s power is limited, he organized a group of church members in the Orange County area to establish a charity foundation. 

Salazar shared that he believes the most significant gain from the distribution was getting to know Tzu Chi. While Tzu Chi and Echame La Mano Pura Vida Foundation are rooted in different religious traditions, he saw a commonality in their missions and views. Further collaborations to serve their communities would undoubtedly be of benefit.

Wilbur Salazar, founder of Echame La Mano Pura Vida Foundation, and his wife, Julia Salazar, the non-profit’s vice president, are glad to establish a connection with Tzu Chi. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Others came to volunteer during the distribution, exhibiting their sense of community solidarity. Among them were high school students affiliated with Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast, glad to lend a hand. 

Lupita Mena, Director of Family Strengthening for the organization, attended the food giveaway event alongside the students. She shared that Tzu Chi USA’s regular medical outreach and other assistance for those in need in Orange County is vital as many families in the community rely on this free medical care and charity aid.

Lupita Mena, Director of Family Strengthening at Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast, attends the distribution alongside the students who came to volunteer. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Some neighbors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana came to volunteer too. Michael Flores, who works for a courier company, chose to come on his day off. He said that while Orange County has more affluent middle-class households, overall, the City of Santa Ana is a low-income community. He knows that his neighbors need extra assistance right now – especially those who are unemployed – and he felt a sense of obligation to help.

Why did you choose to volunteer? This is our community, and I have the responsibility to help my neighbors. Especially during difficult times like now, where a job is hard to find at the moment, and we must help each other during the downturn of the economy.

Michael Flores, a Santa Ana resident, dons a Tzu Chi volunteer vest and helps at the food distribution on his day off from work. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Overcoming Every Challenge

Providing aid during a pandemic is challenging in many respects, yet all the volunteers serving at the distribution remained undaunted. On the day of this event, the temperature outside was as high as 100 degrees. The volunteers managed to ignore the uncomfortable heat as they focused on relieving hunger. The pandemic brought additional discomforts, such as the necessity of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), even under the blistering glare of a blazing sun.

As Tzu Chi volunteers – wearing masks, face shields, and gloves themselves – handed out PPE to community volunteers checking in, Edward Yau, who was in charge of the distribution on-site, was touched. Everyone’s determination and courage in stepping out of their comfort zone at home to help others was evident. He expressed the hope that Tzu Chi’s collaboration with the Mormon Church would continue to evolve, so more events like this could take place.

So long as one is optimistic and determined, no challenges are too hard to bear.

As volunteers register, others check their temperature, enforcing every preventative measure for everyone's safety. Photo/Emerald Hsu
Tzu Chi volunteers provide PPE for community volunteers as they register. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Gina Shih, who was responsible for preparing the food supplies for the distribution event, was appreciative of how although this was the first time Tzu Chi USA and the Mormon Church were collaborating, everything went smoothly thanks to everyone’s joint effort and planning. Tzu Chi volunteers delivered the food supplies on-site the day before so that everything would be ready. Members of Santa Ana’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to help, then brought many English and Spanish bilingual volunteers to assist on the distribution day.

Volunteers ask how many family members there are in each household to determine the amount of food it will receive. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Tzu Chi volunteer Martin Kuo, who’s in charge of the overall coordination of distribution events in Orange County, said that over the past few months, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Orange County Service Center have been delivering PPE to medical institutions. However, at the same time, they’ve kept the need for food assistance always in mind. Their persistence led to the collaboration with the Mormon Church and made this food giveaway event possible.

Thanking the community organizations that came to help at Tzu Chi’s food distribution event in Santa Ana. Photo/Emerald Hsu

As Master Cheng Yen says, “As long as you made up your mind to do it, things that were previously considered difficult will become easier and delightful.” Tzu Chi volunteers in Orange County and across the United States are fearlessly overcoming any obstacles that arise on their path to benefit those in need in their communities. 

Tzu Chi USA invites you to participate in our aid efforts, which you can do simply by supporting our missions. Together, we can help families survive the many challenges they’re facing right now, as the pandemic continues to adversely impact lives around the world.

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