Continuous Love and Care for Vulnerable Families in East Palo Alto, California

Northwest  |  December 21, 2020
Cindy Hung gives essential supplies to a resident of East Palo Alto, California, a Hispanic community Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers have long cared for and continue during the pandemic. Photo/Vivian Chang

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

“During the pandemic, after the completion of a cash card distribution to the community in East Palo Alto in May, we should continue to care for and support families impacted severely by COVID-19.” Tzu Chi volunteers Christine Liu, Michelle Wong, Leslie Shieh, and Ellen Chen were in mutual agreement as to the path forward as they discussed Tzu Chi USA’s charity cases in East Palo Alto, California.

After the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the nation in March 2020, Tzu Chi volunteers in East Palo Alto maintained their care for underprivileged families there, aid they have been providing for a decade already. Volunteers began visits to those within the community who are being hardest-hit by the pandemic, undocumented Latino residents among them, as they are particularly vulnerable, lacking access to aid resources.

When they distributed cash cards in May to assist underprivileged families in East Palo Alto with essentials, the volunteers had discovered that many of the care recipients couldn’t communicate in English. Many had created households with several families living together to save on the cost of their rent. The fact that they don’t speak or understand English further complicates the situation for some. Moreover, with several children to support in each household, these families’ daily expenses are substantial.

Therefore, after issuing the emergency cash cards, the volunteers decided to continue donating essential living supplies to these families through Tzu Chi USA’s mid to long-term care programs. And, as Tzu Chi volunteer Michelle Wong explained, this aid can be tailored as need be, since, “During our interactions every month, we learn the needs of each family to help them get through difficult times during the pandemic.”

Members of Tzu Chi USA’s charity case team, Michelle Wong, Christine Liu, and Ellen Chen, continue to provide long-term care for underserved households in East Palo Alto’s Hispanic community. Photo/Vivian Chang

Preparing Care Packages of Essential Supplies

Tzu Chi volunteers began to plan a mid to long-term care program for this vulnerable population. When on August 1, 25 families were to pick up food from a community food bank, the volunteers planned to give them care packages as well. The aid supplies would include disinfection and cleaning supplies; cloth masks for adults and teens; second-hand clothes for teenagers and children; Tzu Chi’s noodles and Jing Si Rice; plus pinto beans, which are commonly eaten by Mexican families.

To prepare and organize sufficient supplies for households of differing sizes, Tzu Chi volunteers recruited local volunteers in the Silicon Valley’s Sunnyvale community to help. By early July, everyone began to work closely together. From sourcing to sorting and packaging, the Tzu Chi and local community volunteers joined forces, and within three weeks, they had prepared care packages for 25 households in East Palo Alto. They had also customized the care packages according to the specific needs of each family.

During the pandemic, many Tzu Chi volunteers expressed their dedication to continuing to serve the community. Therefore, this distribution mobilized nearly 50 volunteers within the community.

Volunteer Leslie Shieh puts a cloth mask, made by community volunteers, on a four-year-old boy at the distribution. Photo/Vivian Chang

Surmounting Shortages of Cleaning and Disinfection Supplies

During the pandemic, stores can stock their shelves with disinfectants and cleaning supplies in the morning, and customers will buy them out by the same afternoon. To assure that the families who would be receiving Tzu Chi’s care packages could have some of these goods, which have become so precious during the pandemic, the volunteers began to purchase supplies well in advance of the distribution to surmount widespread shortages.

Cleaning wipes were the hardest to obtain out of all the supplies. Many volunteers lined up at stores every day but still came back empty-handed. Volunteer Carol Hsia even tried to wait in line starting from 7 in the morning, hoping to be the first to shop when the store opened at 8. She rushed to the shelf where the store keeps them, but it was empty: The goods were out of stock. She had to try her luck elsewhere.

One day, a volunteer sent a message on the team’s group chat that there were now cleaning wipes in stock in certain stores. Volunteers who were available immediately set out. Yet when Grace Chen arrived at one of the stores, she only found one set of three left. One could buy bottles of disinfecting products, but purchases were limited to one per person.

There was an employee near the supplies, looking after the items. Grace found a photo on her phone of the disinfecting products volunteers had already collected and showed it to the clerk, explaining that Tzu Chi was preparing to distribute such essential items to underprivileged families in East Palo Alto.

When Grace asked if she could buy more, she was allowed to purchase the remaining stock, although it only constituted a few items. When leaving the store, the employee smiled and said, “Thank you.” They both felt grateful for each other’s good intentions.

After volunteers rushed to several stores, they bought all the cleaning wipes they were short of for the distribution within an hour. Finally, thanks to efforts shopping in person and online, all the cleaning supplies, including disinfectant cleaners and wipes, hand sanitizers, and soap, had been obtained and could be packed and readied for the day of the giveaway.

The care packages contain cleaning supplies that include disinfectants, wipes, hand sanitizer, and soap. Photo/Vivian Chang

Offering Cloth Masks Made with Love

When Tzu Chi volunteers visited households in need of assistance, they found that the children in the families lacked suitably sized cloth masks. Therefore, they decided to ask the community volunteers to help, and Rebecca Yang took on the responsibility of coordinating the production of homemade cloth masks for kids.

The volunteers executed everything as a team, from the design and samples to start, then patterns, material preparation, cutting, sewing, ironing, threading, and packaging. When challenges arose, they found ways to overcome them: For instance, since it would take too long to order the elastic bands required for the masks, Rebecca devised using a flexible fabric instead.

The seven volunteer team was able to produce 108 cloth masks for teenagers and children within ten days. Concurrently, a volunteer team of high school students made cloth masks for adults, completing 170 cloth masks for donation.

Tzu Chi volunteer Rebecca Yang, responsible for coordinating a team of volunteers to make cloth masks for teenagers and kids, joins the production process as well. Photo/Eric Munro
Tzu Chi volunteer Lanny Chen sews junior-sized cloth masks. Photo/David Wang
Tzu Chi volunteer Hua Zhong is part of the team making junior-sized cloth masks at home. Photo/Chienchun Chen

Volunteer Miew Keen Choong and her two daughters, Natalie Lye and Kimberly Lye, who are still in elementary school, completed the cloth masks’ packaging at home. The three first sorted out the number of masks needed for each household and then printed out labels for each package. They also inserted a bookmark, with one of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms printed on it, to send an inspirational message to the recipient. Their dedication as a family will now bring love and care to other families in need.

Tzu Chi volunteer Miew Keen Choong and her daughter Kimberly Lye work together at home, packaging the cloth masks. Photo/Natalie Lye

Providing Quality Second-hand Clothes

In many of Tzu Chi’s charity cases, young children in the household don’t have sufficient clothing and would benefit from receiving second-hand clothes. Thus, volunteers and a group of high school students collected second-hand children’s clothing from their circle of friends.

Tzu Chi volunteer Ping Liao and her daughter, who is in grade eight, worked with the high school students to prepare the clothes for distribution. Kylie Liao, one of the students who had received many second-hand items from friends and fellow students, helped Ping and her daughter prepare and fold all the donated clothes. They sorted them into bags, marked the bags, and finally cleared up a yard full of clothes and bags within a day.

Kylie Liao, a high school student, volunteers to help with the sorting of second-hand clothes into categories according to gender and size in the yard. Photo/Ping Liao

Preparing for and Setting Up on Distribution Day

On Sunday, July 26, 12 Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers teamed up into two groups to prepare 25 customized care packs for the upcoming distribution on August 1. For safety during the pandemic, they worked outside or in well-ventilated areas.

One group sorted all the second-hand clothes and packed them in the yard. First, they spread a king-size sheet in an open space, laid out all the collected clothes, and then picked out the newer items from the pile of nearly a thousand pieces. They then sorted the selected items by size for each charity case household and neatly folded and packed them into a Tzu Chi eco-friendly bag. The entire process took the team four hours to complete.

Working outside, Tzu Chi volunteers organize donated second-hand clothes for distribution. Photo/Munya Chu
Tzu Chi volunteers work together to sort the sizes that best suit each family member according to gender and age, folding them neatly into the care packages. Photo/Munya Chu

The second group of volunteers worked in an open garage and organized the two additional bags that would be part of the care packages each household would receive. They filled one bag with food, including Jing Si Rice and noodles from Taiwan, and two packs of one-pound pinto beans, a favorite staple of Latino families.

The volunteers then packed another bag with cleaning supplies, disinfectants, wipes, hand sanitizer, and soap. Plus, they added cloth and medical masks – enough so that every family member would have two cloth masks and medical masks suitable for all occasions to protect their health and safety.

Tzu Chi volunteers pack care packages according to each household’s needs. Photo/Leslie Shieh
Volunteer Kate Kao and her daughter Iris Chou help pack the essential supplies for distribution. Photo/Munya Chu

On August 1, 12 Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto before 8 a.m. to set up for the distribution. To ensure both care recipients and volunteers’ safety, they measured safe distances at least six feet apart and marked them with tape on the ground where the waiting lines would form at each distribution table.

When they served the public, the volunteers would all be wearing N95 masks topped with a cloth mask for protection and gloves on both hands. Also, since most of the awaited care recipient families only speak Spanish, Tzu Chi volunteers invited Devier Wallace and Veronica Ibarra, Spanish-speaking community volunteers they’ve worked with for years, who came to offer their translation services. And finally, everything was ready for the families’ arrival.

Devier Wallace, a volunteer who has been supporting the community with Spanish translation for many years, assists at the distribution. Photo/Vivian Chang
Veronica Ibarra, a volunteer who has partnered with Tzu Chi as a Spanish translator in the community for many years, is there to help. Photo/Vivian Chang

The Care Packages Bring Joy When Received

Many families at the distribution shared how they were faring, given all the difficulties the pandemic is causing. In most cases, the volunteers already knew of their particular hardships from prior distributions and home visits and had prepared supplies that would help alleviate some of their woes. Take the case of Nina (pseudonym), for instance.

Sadly, Nina lost her job during the pandemic and is still unemployed. Her husband, who is a day laborer, is currently only working three days per week. They have three daughters and one son with Down syndrome. The boy is four years old and still needs diapers daily. Therefore, buying diapers for the child takes away a large portion of their household income.

To meet this family’s needs, the volunteers had prepared three boxes of diapers and three packs of baby wipes for the boy, which can last for about three months. On the day of the distribution, Nina brought her four kids to pick up the supplies. Volunteers saw her son without a mask and immediately picked out a homemade cloth mask for him. It fit just right, and he was delighted.

Nina was joyful as she prepared to leave the distribution with second-hand clothes for the kids, cleaning supplies, masks, staple foods, and other gifts she could take, including Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks. Nina’s daughters listened carefully when a volunteer shared Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank story and how kind thoughts and good deeds can have a tremendous and far-reaching impact. Inspired, each child grabbed one to take home.

A volunteer helped Nina bring all the supplies to her car, and before she left, she expressed her thanks for all the assistance, which included the cash card she had received at Tzu Chi’s distribution in May.

Thank you so much for the urgent aid. Because of your help, I know that we can get through this difficult time during the pandemic.

Nina thanks Tzu Chi for the cash card she received in May and the care packages she got today to help her family get through this challenging time. Photo/Vivian Chang

Another long-term care recipient who came to the distribution, Angela (pseudonym), is a single mother referred to Tzu Chi for assistance two years ago by her children’s school. She has four kids ranging in age from six to 15. Angela works at a fast-food restaurant as she struggles to raise four children alone.

She used to work too much and was once so stressed that a social worker took her children away, and Angela nearly lost custody of them. At that harrowing point in this mother’s life, Tzu Chi volunteers visited Angela and helped calm her anxiety, thus gaining her trust. After the pandemic hit, to stay home with her kids, Angela shortened her working hours. Now the reduced income makes it hard to make ends meet and amplifies her worry about being capable of supporting her family. Thus, Angela was deeply grateful for the care packages.

On the day of the distribution, when Angela came to pick up the supplies, the volunteers noticed that she had lost a lot of weight and looked great. It turns out that Angela is on a diet for her health and is consuming less sugar and meat. The volunteers took the opportunity to encourage her to try a meat-free diet for at least six days a week since a vegetarian diet can improve one’s health. She smiled and said, “I will try my best.”

Angela, a single mother of four, picks up Tzu Chi’s care packages at the distribution. Photo/Vivian Chang

At the distribution, new case connections emerged as well. Betty (pseudonym) had come to the food bank for grocery supplies and saw Tzu Chi volunteers distributing living essentials, so she came by to ask if she could also get help from Tzu Chi. It turns out that Betty is undocumented and lacks access to support. She’s also a single mother of three and currently unemployed due to the pandemic. Tzu Chi volunteers wrote down her contact information immediately and planned to conduct a home visit the following week to give her timely assistance.

Going the Extra Mile Makes Their Dreams Come True

When the volunteers gave out the essential supplies to the families, they also took the time to explain how to prepare or use some of them properly. For example, Tsailin Lai introduced the preparation methods of Jing Si Rice and also explained the origins and convenient versatility of this signature Tzu Chi product. At the same time, Tsailin took the opportunity to share the health and environmental benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet.

To further express her concerns for their health, Tsailin then encouraged people to use the cleaning products they had received with care, making sure to have sufficient air circulation at home when spraying to avoid inhaling too many chemicals. Volunteer Emily Polivka was equally mindful to remind care recipients how to use the cleaning products safely.

When handing them out, Emily then took time to teach the children how to wear the cloth masks they received correctly. Her son Owen, an eighth-grader, contributed his help too. He had created a poster to demonstrate the correct ways of wearing cloth masks, which he and his mom brought to the distribution site.

On her part, as Cindy Hung gave out the masks, she also made sure to explain the correct way of wearing them to each child. The atmosphere at the distribution site was truly warm and friendly; familial, one could say, providing an additional comfort source for the care recipients during these trying times. That made it feel like a mission accomplished for all the volunteers, who had gone the extra mile to benefit these families.

I feel the preparation process of meetings, suggestions, and changes to the implementation at the distribution site were successfully completed according to plan. It really is like a ‘dream come true.

True skill is persistence despite difficulty. True patience is overcoming obstacles despite challenges.

Continuous Love and Care Brings Hope

The relentless COVID-19 pandemic has dropped additional burdens onto the shoulders of already vulnerable families in the East Palo Alto community of Silicon Valley, California. Through it all, Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers have not ceased to provide care and support. From their cash card distribution in May to the issuance of care packages in August and now plans for the next phase of distributions in the winter at the end of the year, they are steadfastly responding to the families’ evolving needs.

At the lead, Tzu Chi volunteer Christine Liu helped the community food bank with its distribution and then set up the list of families who need additional care: Tzu Chi subsequently provided cash cards then care packages for them. During the pandemic, Christine’s contribution to the East Palo Alto community has continued without fail. Working alongside task teams of volunteers, together, they are accomplishing Tzu Chi’s aid goals seamlessly.

The pandemic may be unpredictable, and the virus infection may infect anyone, so we must seize the opportunity to help those in need when we have the ability to do so.

And so, although their troubles have continued to pile up, Tzu Chi USA’s uninterrupted care for vulnerable families and communities across the nation is bringing hope. We invite you to join us in our charity aid initiatives by supporting our missions and activities. We’re all in this together!

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