Tzu Chi Volunteers Complete Their First Tri-State Volunteer Distribution for Fire Survivors in Medford

Northwest  |  March 29, 2021
A total of 27 Tzu Chi volunteers from three states gather in Medford, OR, to jointly distribute cash cards and supplies to residents affected by the Almeda Drive Fire. Photo/CM Yung

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang  
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

“We made it.” Tzu Chi volunteer, Michelle Liang, who undertook the coordination of this distribution in Medford, Oregon, had successfully completed the work together with volunteers from Portland, San Jose, and Seattle, and expressed sincere gratitude after a successful joint wildfire relief distribution.

On September 8th, 2020, a fire broke out in the mountains on both sides of Highway 99 and Southbound on Interstate 5 (I-5) from Oregon to the California border. The Almeda Drive Fire was fueled by strong winds, rapidly spreading north to burn across Talent and Phoenix, killing one person and destroying more than 2,500 houses.

The Almeda Drive Fire severely impacted the cities of Talent and Phoenix, destroying more than 2,500 houses. Photo/Judy Liao

Tzu Chi volunteers held a distribution event in Medford, a city near the fire-affected area. On October 31st, a total of 27 Tzu Chi volunteers gathered here from three places — 10 of whom drove six hours one way from San Jose, California, to provide their assistance at the event. Four volunteers came from Seattle, Washington, driving seven hours to reach the distribution site. The 13 Tzu Chi volunteers in Oregon were from North Portland, which is also a four-and-a-half-hour drive. Nevertheless, all the volunteers were determined to give their love and aid to the survivors in this troubling time. 

Volunteers distributed cash cards and essential supplies to the residents affected by the fire. A total of $67,200 in cash cards were issued that day in addition to 149 blankets, 111 scarves, 307 cloth masks, 81 bags of Jing Si Instant Rice, 116 bamboo banks, and 121 Jing Si Aphorism books in four languages. A total of 371 individuals from 121 disaster-stricken households were assisted.

A total of 27 Tzu Chi volunteers deliver love donated from around the world to the residents affected by the fire in Oregon. Photo/Judy Liao

A New Family Member

Susie, who’s in her seventies, has been retired for many years. She lived alone in a manufactured home surrounded by a beautiful field of green in the south of Oregon. She never expected that a fire might one day consume all of her belongings. In need of help, she reached out. When Susie received the call from a Tzu Chi volunteer named Michelle Liang notifying her that she would be able to receive a cash card, Susie’s tone revealed a sense of reserve. That was, until she discovered Michelle was from Taiwan. She’d found something that felt familiar amidst all the uncertainty, and told Michelle that she’d been to Taiwan in the past.

Tzu Chi volunteer, Michelle Liang, and Susie, whose home was destroyed in the fire, formed a heartfelt connection over their very first telephone conversation. Photo/CM Yung

It turned out that Susie’s older brother worked in Taiwan for a period of time in his early years, so Susie went to Taiwan to visit and travel, creating many fond memories. But all of those cherished photos were consumed in the fire, as were the books she held dear.

Susie arrived at the distribution site around noon, where Michelle Liang presented her with a cash card and daily necessities, as well as three books in English, including a book of Jing Si Aphorisms. At noon, Tzu Chi volunteers played the song, “Love and Care For All,” and performed in Sign Language to lift the spirits of residents during break time. Susie said that she could feel the love of Tzu Chi volunteers from the very first call. After that, Susie made a video call to her brother and introduced the volunteers beside her, saying, “These Tzu Chi volunteers are my new family.” And indeed, love without borders had brought them together as one global Tzu Chi family.

“We are all a family living under the same sky.” Two fire survivors are moved to tears as they listen to Tzu Chi volunteers reading Master Cheng Yen’s condolences aloud. Photo/CM Yung

I Will Be Back With the Bamboo Bank

The Almeda Drive Fire burned on both sides of Highway 99 due to the powerful winds that day, smoke and flames billowing seemingly everywhere. Eugene, another fire survivor whose home was destroyed, came by to pick up a cash card. “The fire was in the woods near our home on both sides of the highway,” Eugine recalled. “I got home, and my house was burned to the ground.”

Volunteers greet the residents waiting to receive a cash card and introduce Tzu Chi’s mission. Recipients were touched to learn how the volunteers came from three states to deliver their support. Photo/CM Yung

The wildfire survivors who came to Tzu Chi’s distribution event also received blankets and scarves in addition to the cash card, so that the residents could stay warm during the chill of late autumn. Recipients also adopted bamboo banks. Upon learning the origin story of the bank and knowing that the cash cards were made possible thanks to the donations of people from all over the globe who wished to help them, they, too, hoped to one day pay their love forward.

Volunteers deliver warm blankets to the residents to help keep them warm during the late autumn chill. Photo/CM Yung

Recognizing that Tzu Chi’s eco-friendly blankets were made from recycled materials collected by Taiwan’s Tzu Chi volunteers, a fire survivor named Yolanda was moved to take a bamboo bank as well. “I want to contribute to the spirit of saving small change to make a huge difference,” she said with emotion. “I really love what you guys do. After I fill the bamboo bank, I will come back for another one.”

Yolanda, a wildfire survivor, was deeply moved by the love from Tzu Chi volunteers. Despite her own losses, she wishes to give back by filling up her bamboo bank bit-by-bit to help others in need. Photo/CM Yung

Happy to Meet Again

On October 31st, Tzu Chi held a distribution at a high school in the city of Medford that was temporarily converted into a Local Assistance Center. Peter Gaynor, Administrator for The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was assigned to assist Tzu Chi, and was quite familiar with how Tzu Chi works. Peter had encouraged Tzu Chi volunteers to use the venue and the facility as much as possible because he knows that Tzu Chi volunteers strive to give their compassion and relief to survivors wherever disasters strike.

Tzu Chi took the initiative to provide assistance in Paradise for the Camp Fire survivors in 2018. You did an excellent job helping the residents resolve their difficulties. So when I heard that you were here, I was very happy.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor is quite familiar with Tzu Chi and has maintained great friendships with volunteers through mutual support during distribution activities. Photo/Judy Liao

Minjhing Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi’s Northwest regional branch, is very grateful for Administrator Gaynor’s support. 

“Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency has allowed us to complete the distribution tasks smoothly and effectively, I am very happy to see Peter here,” expressed Executive Director Hsieh. “We are here to work together again.” But Minjhing Hsieh hopes that there will not be a next time. Tzu Chi volunteers sincerely hope that the local communities can return to normal as soon as possible, and that disasters will no longer bring pain to people’s lives.

An Expression of Love And Care

Tzu Chi volunteer Michelle Liang recalled how the wildfires broke out in Oregon in early September, with as many as 37 fire sites. “It’s just a feeling of not giving up.” Michelle Liang said it was incredibly difficult to bear the knowledge that the residents they were helping suddenly had nothing left. With the number of fires, they didn’t know where to start. However, volunteers from Northern California immediately offered their support and started a name list through online registration. Seattle volunteers, too, referred American Red Cross contacts and helped direct FEMA to the fire in Jackson County. With mutual support, volunteers successfully completed their first tri-state volunteer distribution in Medford, OR.

When the unfortunate cannot find help, those who are blessed must go to them.

The love and care from Tzu Chi volunteers after the wildfire in Oregon continues to provide warmth to the people in need. Photo/Judy Liao

When those most vulnerable are in need of help, Tzu Chi volunteers strive to be there, at the ready with love and care.

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