Tzu Chi Volunteers Deliver Hope to Woolsey Fire Survivors Impacted by the Pandemic

National Headquarters  | February 18, 2021
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Tzu Chi volunteers provide an envelope containing disaster relief funds to Oscar Pablo (right), a survivor of the Woolsey Fire. Photo/Mandy Lo

Written by Debra Boudreaux, Sherry Ku, and Su Jen Li
Translated by Diana Chang  
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

On November 8th, 2018, the Woolsey Fire caused overwhelming damage in Los Angeles County and Ventura County, California, burning 39,234 hectares of land, destroying 1,643 buildings, killing 3 people, and forcing the evacuation of more than 290,000. Two years later, Tzu Chi volunteers have continued to provide their love and care to those impacted, and visited the Woolsey Fire area again on October 22nd.

Still Feeling the Impact

Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA drove for more than an hour to bring relief funds provided by the American Red Cross to the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu for distribution. Passing through the fire-stricken areas, one can now see that land preparation and house reconstructions are in progress everywhere. But there are also remnants left by the fire that can never be repaired. Some wildfire survivors are waiting for funds from the government and insurance, or they are looking forward to an opportunity to get back on their feet in another way. Some families have parked a camping RV on their property for temporary accommodation.

Volunteers drive for more than an hour to reach the city of Malibu in the Woolsey Fire impacted area. Photo/Mandy Lo
Tzu Chi volunteers arrive at the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu to give their aid. Photo/Mandy Lo

Some families have returned to their normal lifestyle. However, some farmers and day laborers continue to feel the effects of the ruthless blaze. They have lost their jobs and their homes. After the fire, they can scarcely bring in enough income to support their family. They had not yet recovered either when the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the globe, making it leagues more difficult for these families to find their footing. More than 700 seriously ill individuals, seniors, and single-parent households don’t know how they’ll afford their next meal. 

When disasters strike, different relief and assistance projects are needed. Many non-profit organizations cooperate with each other to give their expertise and provide assistance for the survivors through education, disaster relief, and vocational training. Through their collaboration with Tzu Chi over the years, the American Red Cross has generously provided Tzu Chi with $200,000 for a relief project after the Woolsey Fire.

Disaster Relief Projects Bring Hope

Two years after the Woolsey Fire, there are still many sites in the area that have not been rebuilt. Photo/Mandy Lo
Before the distribution, the Boys & Girls Club set up a registration desk by the door outside. Photo/Mandy Lo

Locals came to the distribution site at 10 AM. After washing their hands and taking their body temperature, volunteers helped with registration and verified everyone’s information. At events like these, volunteers know how important it is to let survivors truly be heard, offering an attentive ear with compassion as the residents told volunteers their stories. Although the volunteers couldn’t give them hugs as usual due to social distancing precautions, they could still see how having someone to simply listen eased a weight from their shoulders. When volunteers handed the residents a cash card and explained the source and method of use, they expressed their gratitude and joy once again. Because $500 can be used to pay bills and buy daily necessities, it’s a great source of relief from the short-term difficulties, but it also reminded survivors that they are cared for.

Since February, Tzu Chi USA and the American Red Cross have undertaken an alleviation project for families in the Woolsey Fire area, and strengthened assistance for disaster-stricken households and day laborers after the outbreak. Residents have adopted homeschooling amid the pandemic and many work from home as well. During this time, the affected families encountered additional household expenses they never had to contend with in the past. Therefore, when school began, Tzu Chi volunteers collaborated with the local school district to organize distribution activities for the families, including a distribution at the Santa Monica Boys & Girls Club on October 15th. These distribution activities helped struggling families in the Woolsey Fire area, benefiting 132 households in total.

Over the past few years, Tzu Chi volunteers have continued to assist John Muir Elementary School. From book donations, to wildfire relief, to COVID-19 relief activities, volunteers have supported both the students and parents. When they gave volunteers specially made thank you cards, their words of sincere gratitude moved the volunteers deeply. 

Recipients Give Back

Oscar Pablo, who used to own a small business, had no job opportunities due to the pandemic. He has three children at home waiting for him to bring food to their table. Tzu Chi’s cash card, however, gave him and his family hope. He received three bamboo banks on the spot as well, hoping to teach his children about giving back to society when they are capable in the future.

Santy Cerna has been diagnosed with cancer and has been impacted by both the Woolsey Fire and the pandemic. Photo/Mandy Lo

Santy Cerna came to the distribution alone using crutches. She lost her job due to the wildfire and the pandemic. She has been suffering from cancer without health insurance, and her father had only just passed away from cancer as well. The family fell into an abyss of extreme pain. During the pandemic, she felt even more lost because she was unable to work. In this time of need, Tzu Chi volunteers delivered compassion and care, giving her hope for the future again.

Without [Tzu Chi’s] help, it would be very difficult for someone like myself and my household to really make ends meet. Especially right now where I can’t find work; I’m not healthy and I can’t do it on my own. And I do thank you greatly for all your help.

Santy Cerna, Woolsey Fire Survivor
Gloria Ayala (left), Oscar Amaya (middle), and Joseline Mina (right) drop by to select shoes. Photo/Mandy Lo
Joseline Mina also hopes to save money to help those in need. Photo/Mandy Lo

Gloria Ayala came with her 18-year-old son, Oscar Amaya, and her niece, Joseline Mina, to receive their cash card. Gloria smiled as she watched her child pick out shoes, saying, “Although life is difficult, I always teach them to be grateful and accept the positive energy in life.” Little Joseline was very happy to receive a pair of shoes as a Christmas gift. She also received a bamboo bank and promised to send it back filled with coins so that she, too, can help those in need.

Oscar, who came to the United States four years ago, is about to start college. As a first-generation student, he’s confident that the way to improve one’s life is through the opportunities presented by higher education. With his family’s loving support, he’s grown to be an open-minded individual who cheerfully faces any challenges that come his way. “Experiencing the devastating wildfire and the pandemic, our lives may be difficult, but fortunately, everyone helps each other and together we are very grateful for Tzu Chi’s help.”

A Gift of Love

Clementine Perez has faced financial difficulties after her husband’s passing. Thanks to the American Red Cross and help from Tzu Chi volunteers, she’s feeling a little more hopeful for the future. She received a bamboo bank from volunteers as well. “I will try my best to fill this piggy bank and send it back to you,” she said. “I will put a coin in it every day so that the money can help others, just like how it helped us. I hope such assistance will continue to spread.”

Clementine Perez’s husband passed away and she now faces financial difficulties. Photo/Mandy Lo
Katrina Pollack, who works in the beauty industry, lost her job due to the pandemic. Photo/Mandy Lo

Two years ago, Katrina Pollack lost everything due to the wildfire. Now, she’s been impacted by the pandemic and lost her only source of income, too. Her three children study remotely during the crisis, and she has to prepare three meals per day at home. Life steadily became more and more difficult. Fortunately, Tzu Chi’s relief funds were able to alleviate some of her most pressing needs.

Dora Amhvocio and her husband were affected by both the wildfire and the pandemic as well. Their income plummeted, and their situation became increasingly worrisome. She happily received the cash card and sincerely thanked volunteers, saying, “This is like a gift from heaven. We’re truly grateful for it from the bottom of my heart. I’ll use the money to pay bills, buy food, and buy some essentials for my daughter.”

Dora Amhvocio is sincerely grateful for the cash card from Tzu Chi. Photo/Mandy Lo

After receiving a cash card, Mireya Abarca emotionally shared her story with the volunteers. Being jobless for an extended period with no income, they felt their situation become steadily more alarming until they were desperate for help. The assistance from Tzu Chi, the American Red Cross, and the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu, warmed her heart and lifted her spirits.

The Power Of Tzu Chi's Support

Tzu Chi USA has been deeply involved within the community for a long time. Indeed, from the “Everybody Reads” book donation program at school, to the large-scale wildfire distributions in 2018, Tzu Chi’s footprint of love and humanitarianism spans much of this community. A distribution list was provided by the school district so volunteers could give a $100 grocery cash card to families in Santa Monica, and volunteers also assisted the hardest-hit households in Malibu with relief funds to help them through this difficult time.

Some families begin to rebuild their homes in the area impacted by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, and some camp on their land temporarily in mobile homes. Photo/Mandy Lo
Much debris from the Woolsey Fire has not yet been cleared out. Photo/Mandy Lo

Debra Boudreaux, the Deputy Chief Executive of Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters, said that we must truly show our gratitude for our partners at the American Red Cross, United Way, and the many charity foundations that offer their help in California. Thanks to them, Tzu Chi has been granted the opportunity to extend its love and care to those most in need. When volunteers gave out cash cards at the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club, they shared their care with multiple religious and ethnic groups they’d met for the first time. When they saw Tzu Chi volunteers as they gave out the $100 grocery gift cards, the locals expressed their heartfelt gratitude through a thank you card to Tzu Chi.

Thanks to the American Red Cross, Tzu Chi’s emergency assistance in the community has been extended, and they were able to help the community and comfort them. Master Cheng Yen reminded us to ‘be grateful, give respect, and love.’ The influence of Tzu Chi’s humanistic culture is a visible highlight of Tzu Chi’s missions.

Debra Boudreaux, Deputy Chief Executive of Tzu Chi USA

The Malibu community has been devastated by the combined impact of the Woolsey Fire and the pandemic. Many residents have lost their jobs and have no income. Tzu Chi’s collaboration with local Boys & Girls Clubs has provided support for nearly 750 households. In the past three years, home visits have confirmed that 200 families are classified as “extremely poor.” Therefore, volunteers personally handed every cash card to the families in extreme need, hoping that these funds can help families put hot meals on the table for their children.

Kasey Earnest, the Chief Professional Officer of the Malibu Boys & Girls Club. Photo/Mandy Lo

Kasey Earnest, the Chief Professional Officer, the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu, explained that many people think that Malibu is a wealthy community. The local area, however, is a small, rural community without hospitals, police stations, or social welfare institutions. The composition of residents is very diverse, and does include minority groups with a lower economic status.

Kasey told us that Boys & Girls Clubs provide services to children and families in the local area as well. Two years ago, when the Woolsey Fire broke out, many residents lost their homes. Their health professionals immediately assumed the role of community crisis consultants, providing hundreds of hours of crisis counseling to families who lost everything. They also provided their care to the impacted children, helping them regain peace of mind. Since then, they have been serving as a health center to provide mental health and protection to the entire community.

The Power of Unity

Four years ago, because there was no community center in the local area, people had to travel elsewhere to get counseling services. Residents and the Boys & Girls Clubs jointly raised funds to set up a health center. Randi Goodman, Director of the Wellness Center at the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu, said that “Vulnerable groups in the community are still affected by the Woolsey Fire. We are working hard to help them recover from the pandemic and try to restore their lives to the original state. Many families are still unemployed and are working hard to get their children to go to school online and rebuild their homes. It may take three years to recover. Therefore, we are very grateful for Tzu Chi’s distribution. This is indeed a great help to these residents.”

Randi Goodman, Director of the Wellness Center at the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu. Photo/Mandy Lo
Siugen Constanza (left), the Director of Community Affairs & Outreach at the Boys and Girls Club of Malibu, continues to assist Tzu Chi in caring for the locals. Photo/Mandy Lo

Siugen Constanza, the Director of Community Affairs & Outreach at the Boys and Girls Club, accompanied the affected residents in their rebuilding process, and at the same time, shared the story of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank in the community for years. Siugen was deeply inspired by the story of Tzu Chi’s origin, and revealed that she has also experienced the hardships of navigating life as an immigrant. Now, she can also share her meaningful experiences to help the community she loves dearly.

Ashleigh Rodriguez is a teacher at the school affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club. Recalling the damage caused by the wildfire, she still has lingering fears. The pandemic has additionally made the financial situation more difficult for families. “After understanding the meaning of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank,” she said, “I often share the story with my children and students, hoping that everyone can contribute and combine the love of everyone to help the people in need stand up again.”

Ashleigh Rodriguez (right), a teacher at a school affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club, also has persisting fears after the Woolsey Fire. Photo/Mandy Lo

Ruthless wildfires caused tremendous heartache for many members of the community, and now the ongoing pandemic continues to alter their lives. At a time when the unemployment rate continues to rise amid the socio-economic downturn, Tzu Chi volunteers will continue to gather their love and energy to accompany struggling families through the ups and downs with love.

People who share a common mission in life need to constantly encourage and inspire one another to maintain their kind thoughts.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

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