They prepared for months, determining the program, spreading the word, and creating “Onward” – an elaborate multi-media exhibition chronicling their journey from 1991 until today. Finally, the day arrived and on April 24th, Tzu Chi New York celebrated a quarter century of service in the Tri-State area and New England.
The venue for the day’s events was Flushing High School, the oldest public high school in New York City, whose glorious auditorium could accommodate the more than 1,000 guests that would attend events during the day. The school was just across the street from Tzu Chi New York’s headquarters on Northern Boulevard, where the Onward exhibition was to be officially opened to the public at 11:15 AM.
The first event of the day began with a film illustrating daily life at the Jing Si Abode, the international headquarters of Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, where its founder Dharma Master Cheng Yen resides and guides nuns in a life of disciplined practice combining prayer, earning their own keep, and serving others.
We then saw “Onward: Tzu Chi Comes to New York”, a film that traces the path of Tzu Chi New York from the heart of Flushing, Queens, which was called “Little Taipei” at the time the organization was founded, to a bigger world that now extends beyond the terminus of the 7-Train in Queens.
The film begins with a testimonial from Chen Su Ying Yang, who acted on Master Cheng Yen’s wish that Tzu Chi should be established in New York, then introduces other founding members including A Mei Guo, who remembers how each coin collected for disaster relief was cherished; Yu Lan Du, who used her Apollo Bakery to spread the dharma thru Jing Si Aphorisms; Yan Gang Yang, who knows how Tzu Chi is a great place to improve yourself; Ying Yun Chen, who kept perfect track of the donations she received from businesses with drawings since she didn’t know how to write; Bi Lian Guo, who recognized early on how sign language performances have the power to move the heart; and Jing Shun Yang, who made it his mission to refurbish old donated clothes so they would be a joy to receive for those in need.
The presence of five of these original founding members on stage after the film was a precious moment for an audience that included 250 volunteers inspired by their example here in New York City.
George Chang, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region, then took the stage to share a bit of his story, which includes 15 years of volunteering, but more importantly, to read a letter addressed to this assembly from Master Cheng Yen. In it, she showed her appreciation for the devoted service of Tzu Chi New York volunteers over the past 25 years, but also pointed out that while at the beginning, volunteers were eager to serve their communities as opportunities arose: Today, with climate change and an increasing number of natural disasters, countless people urgently need their help repeatedly. Global warming is progressing rapidly, and to save our world, we need everyone to recognize the urgency of what is unfolding and to work together. She also added that the terrorist attacks we are seeing around the world one after another are perhaps even worse than natural disasters.
Ambassador Lily L.W. Hsu, the Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York then took the stage to offer her personal remarks about the work Tzu Chi New York is doing.
Next, John Liu, the former New York City Comptroller brought his perspective, pointing out how Tzu Chi has been such a force in the community and worldwide.
He remembered how after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, Tzu Chi went on to distribute $10 million to those affected by the disaster:
What followed was one of Tzu Chi’s signature performances, “Embrace Us All”, where volunteers and doctors use symbolic actions and sign language to convey a universal message of coming to the rescue of people affected by a disaster, while images from real disaster relief missions play in the background. As we saw the procession follow Tzu Chi flags at the end of the performance, the ship in the center of their logo made perfect sense, revealing how Tzu Chi steers a ship of compassion, offering a vessel of refuge to save all beings from suffering.
Next on the program, we saw a film about Tzu Chi New York’s disaster relief partnerships, where we learned that Tzu Chi has partnered with the American Red Cross for 15 years; New York Disaster Interfaith Service for 13 years; and Public School 201 for 5.
Rebecca Lozado, the Principal of PS 201 pointed out that 89% of the kids in the school are considered to come from impoverished families, and need financial, emotional, and social support. She stated that because of the presence of Tzu Chi volunteers at the school on a regular basis, the community is changing, because they see how volunteers “want to give not because they’re going to get something back, but because they know that if they plant the seeds of love and hope and kindness and gentleness and all those wonderful virtues, it’s going to grow, and we are really investing in the future of our children.”
To bring that message home, the audience next had the treat of seeing a group of kids from PS201 perform “Count Me in When You Do Good Deeds”, a song accompanied by sign language.
And then it was time for Tzu Chi New York to receive awards in recognition of its 25 years of devoted service.
New York State Senator Toby Stavisky gave a “Proclamation” from the New York Senate honoring Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and Tzu Chi New York. She pointed out that the parallel between the motto of the State of New York – Excelsior, widely translated from Latin as “onward and upward” – found a fitting echo in “Onward”, Tzu Chi New York’s choice of name for their 25th anniversary event.
A “Proclamation” from the Council of the City of New York, awarded by Council Member Peter Koo and presented by his representative Linna Yu since he was out of town, also honored Tzu Chi New York for 25 years of stellar service to the community.
Tommy Lin, Director of Constituent Services for the City of New York presented a Certificate of Recognition signed by Bill de Blasio, the current Mayor.
The New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer presented a Commendation from the Office of the Comptroller.
And the New York Blood Center presented a Gold Award.
After these honors were awarded, another film about Tzu Chi New York’s partnerships followed, and we heard more testimonials about how volunteers are making a difference in the lives of people in the New York area, including residents in nursing homes such as the Harbor Terrace Adult Home and Assisted Living, where volunteers have been providing free haircuts every 3 months for the past 25 years; Maryknoll Sisters of Saint Dominic, where monthly visits and holiday celebration performances over 16 years continue to bring joy, including the presence of kids who come to visit the elderly; and Union Plaza Care Center, where over the past 10 years, the arrival of Tzu Chi New York volunteers is a cherished blessing:
The concluding testimonial in the film was from a medical director with the New York Blood Center with which Tzu Chi New York has partnered for 24 years. And to follow that, Tina Kovolisky, from the the New York Blood Center was on hand to give Tzu Chi New York an award.
To end the celebrations, Tzu Chi New York also chose to present awards in appreciation of the collaborations which have been forged. Awards went to the Department of Ophthalmology at Columbia University; the Chinese American Independent Practice Association; the American Red Cross, Greater New York; and the National Kidney Foundation. Individual service awards were also given to Dr. Tso Long Hsu; Tian Yin Ma; Lily Shao; Yu Gui Wu, You Qin Yuan, and Jian Bi Xia; Zhao Lin Ding; Dr. Henry Ting; and Dr. Richard Hwang.
A sign language performance to the song “Love Illuminates the World” ended the joyous event, while a cake was brought on stage, and the official opening of the “Onward” exhibition was announced.
For everyone here in New York who attended in person or via live stream, it was an occasion to remember. We’ll tell you more about the “Onward” exhibition in our next blog!
Addendum: New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim had planned to join the 25th Anniversary celebrations and to present a citation to Tzu Chi New York, but he was unable to attend. On May 8th two weeks later, Assemblyman Kim came to Tzu Chi’s annual Family Festival celebrating Buddha Day, Tzu Chi Day, and Mother’s Day. He presented the citation on that occasion, and also got a personal tour of the “Onward” Exhibition from George Chang, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region.