South Fire Survivors Receive a Range of Aid at Tzu Chi USA Headquarters

National Headquarters  |  October 4, 2021
Tzu Chi volunteers help Lytle Creek residents impacted by the South Fire carry the disaster relief supplies they received at Tzu Chi USA Headquarters to their vehicles. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng

Written by Chongjiu Chen
Translated by Mark Wan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

On August 25, 2021, Lytle Creek, in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was ravaged by the South Fire, which burnt down at least nine residences and more than ten buildings. The nine owners of the scorched houses came to the Tzu Chi USA Headquarters campus in San Dimas to receive disaster relief supplies. 

The volunteers who met them were very considerate of their feelings, of the sadness they were trying to tame over the loss of their homes. Their comfort and succor helped boost the disaster survivors’ inner strength as they began the long journey to full recovery.

Making Sure Every Aid Dollar Reaches Far

Volunteer Cishi Zhang introduces Tzu Chi’s origins and missions in detail to the South Fire disaster survivors who came to receive aid. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng
Volunteers meticulously pack food bags with an assortment of nutritious items for the disaster survivors to take. Photo/Jiaying Zhao

Cishi Zhang, a Tzu Chi volunteer in charge of activities in Southern California, expressed that, for the distribution of emergency relief supplies, volunteers usually go to either where the disaster struck or to emergency shelters set up for survivors. But this time, since the South Fire survivors had lost their residences entirely, most were staying at the homes of friends or in trailers. Some might feel embarrassed to receive aid in the places where they were now living. 

That’s why the volunteers invited them to come to Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters campus, and in doing so, they would also have an opportunity to learn about the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and its missions. To prepare for receiving this particular group of guests, Tzu Chi volunteers at the campus readied urgent items such as cash cards, eco-blankets, and face masks. 

Additionally, the disaster survivors could select from an assortment of essential items for daily use or hygiene, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, hand sanitizer, towels, second-hand jackets, and shoes. Furthermore, the volunteers also prepared food and snacks to taste on the spot or take home to share with the rest of their family, as cooking may be challenging under the circumstances.

Volunteer Aiping Li (left) welcomes disaster survivors as well as volunteers who came to help. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng
Some of the South Fire disaster survivors come with young children. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng

All the families who received an invitation came. Aiping Li, a volunteer in charge of Tzu Chi USA’s charity activities, worked alongside other volunteers to greet them, checking the details of destruction to their houses while verifying IDs and filling out forms to apply for cash cards. To make sure every aid dollar reaches as far as possible, Tzu Chi USA dispenses an amount of financial assistance based on the number of family members in the household and the extent of damages to their home.

Moved to Tears

Upon receiving cash cards, the families, led by the volunteers, proceeded to an area where they could pick up the prearranged aid supplies – food, blankets, face masks. They subsequently walked over to where all the other products for daily use and second-hand clothes were waiting and chose items to take according to their individual needs. All combined, the disaster relief they received and could select brought some of the South Fire survivors to the verge of tears, as they felt deeply touched by the volunteers’ thoughtful care and preparations.  

Jackson Chen, CEO of Tzu Chi USA, explained that most of the clothes and home goods kept at the Headquarters campus for giving away to those in need are brand new or unused and recently donated by volunteers and community residents. And, nearly all the second-hand clothes are 80-90% unused. Once volunteers collect donated clothes, they will carefully launder and properly sort them by size and type before offering them for people in need to select. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tzu Chi USA Headquarters campus volunteers usually displayed such donated supplies for the picking during monthly food distributions. And, sometimes, depending on varying demands, they even shipped some of the goods to places such as Laos, St. Vincent, Somaliland, etc., in the hope of providing material care while cherishing Earth’s limited resources.

Care recipients may select clothes right on the spot. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng
Care recipients may also select pandemic safety supplies and items for daily use. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng

On this particular day, nine families hardest hit by the South Fire who were in the care of the American Red Cross each received a cash card of $600 as emergency assistance and picked up essential goods and other items if needed. All the visitors’ faces lit up joyfully at the pleasant surprises, and they sighed with relief as Tzu Chi met some of their immediate needs that day. 

After hearing about how the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation started and how its footprints of charitable work have reached 126 countries across the globe, they solemnly grabbed hold of Tzu Chi’s “bamboo banks” to bring to whatever living arrangement they now considered home. Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s message, inscribed on those humble tubes, “Small Change, Big Difference,” resonates as much today as back when the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation started in 1966, and now, these care recipients could spread the message to others.

The Joy of Giving

“I’m currently staying with a friend’s family. I get a backache sleeping on the soft pad placed on the floor,” Victor Ricanqui said, describing his current living conditions to Tzu Chi volunteers. They, in turn, recommended a Jing Si Multi-Purpose Foldable Bed to him.  He watched in amazement as a volunteer demonstrated how this award-winning Tzu Chi invention works. After Victor tried the bed himself, he was delighted at its comfort, not what he had expected. The bed would finally help relieve the backache that had been bothering him for days.

A volunteer demonstrates how to use the Jing Si Multi-Purpose Foldable Bed. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng
There is plenty of food ready for the disaster relief recipients to take home. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng

“The wildfire came quickly, and all the residents along our street evacuated, leaving behind whatever we didn’t have time to take, which subsequently burnt to ashes.” Victor got a little emotional as he continued…

You are very, very generous, which is a quality I only witnessed in the wake of the fire. You, good people, are doing the angel’s work of helping those of us in urgent need, which instilled in me a sense of hope and peace. And I have also learned to experience the pleasure of helping others no matter how big or small of a favor I can do for people!

Art Banks also lost his house, consumed by the destructive flames of the South Fire. “Never in my life did I ever imagine that one day I would need to receive help from others. You’ve completely exceeded my expectations as far as the assistance is concerned. Really appreciated!” he exclaimed. He then echoed Victor’s sentiments about discovering the joy of giving:

The bamboo bank from you makes me realize that the cumulative effect of pennies keeping piling up can really help families in need. I wish to come back here one day to help others the way you’ve helped me.

Warm Blankets for Cold Nights

“I was at home when the wildfire started, and my son ran in to tell me the fire started at the other end of our street. Wildfire is quite common in the mountain close by but up until now hasn’t reached our house. At that very moment, we only had about half an hour to pack up as much as we could, and then we needed to drive out in a hurry, leaving our house and everything else in it to go up in smoke,” David Miller Jr. described what he went through to Tzu Chi volunteers. 

Face masks and eco-blankets in hand, David was most happy, sharing, “I’m very appreciative of both the [American] Red Cross and Tzu Chi for taking initiatives in contacting me with assistance. It’s a great idea to use a bamboo bank to save up small change for the greater good. And I like that case of face masks very much because my family is running low. Blankets also allow us to sleep better at night. Thank you!” 

The warmth of genuine care from the volunteers brings beaming smiles to disaster relief recipients, hidden by the face masks but evident in their eyes. Photo/Yongzhong Zeng

From financial assistance to essential goods and emotional comfort, the South Fire disaster survivors left feeling supported and uplifted that day. Such holistic aid is at the heart of Tzu Chi’s disaster relief activities. It helps survivors materially and psychologically, boosting their resilience and capacity to recover after a calamity turns their lives upside down.

By supporting Tzu Chi USA’s California wildfire relief activities, you can share in the joy of giving as well. Through your generosity and love, families seeking sure footing on the path to full recovery will feel more confident and capable of withstanding the pressures and challenges along the way.

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