Written by Joy Chen
Edited by Patrick McShane
Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region Oakland Service Center’s volunteers have been cleaning the streets of Oakland, from 2nd Street to 10th Street, on the first Sunday of every month for 20 years.
On September 3, 2023, the sun was shining brightly in Northern California, the volunteers gathered at the Tzu Chi Service Center and split into two groups to clean up the city’s streets. Tzu Chi Oakland Service Center is located on Oakland’s International Boulevard, a place where there are many people in need, and the scourges of violence and drugs are often present.
Since opening in this location in 2003, the office has become a beacon of hope in a community so often neglected and downtrodden. The building has seldom encountered vandalism, though many neighboring buildings have. Even during the 2020 renovation of the facility and the outbreak of the pandemic, the premises were untouched.
Planting the Root of Kindness and Mobilizing the Community
Cleaning the streets is a regular monthly activity for volunteers, and Kent Law, who is 83 years old this year, shared, “When I see the dirty streets, I want to help clean them, because it’s our home, and we have the responsibility to make it clean.” Many volunteers have been involved in the street cleaning effort for more than 10 years, and have never lost their enthusiasm. They have been doing so as usual every month, almost without interruption save during the pandemic.
Needles, cigarette butts, and personal garbage on the streets that are left by the people experiencing homelessness are all cleaned up by the volunteers. Their target is to make the neighborhood cleaner and the city look better; so that people who come here will not be left with a bad impression, and citizens can have pride in their city. Many of the stores in the neighborhood know the Tzu Chi volunteers. Volunteer Ru Hua Jiang pointed to the stores along the street and explained, “This is a barber’s shop, and when the Service Center organizes the monthly vegetable and fruit distribution, they will come over to help; the florist would collect cardboard boxes and give them over to us for recycling.”
All the stores on both sides of the street were now closed on Sundays because the security situation has become more precarious recently. While the volunteers were doing their work, there was an ear-splitting sound of motorcycles coming from the International Boulevard. Many people avoid walking on the street due to the cacophony and even the police can not do anything about the disruptive noise. Many in the community admire the Tzu Chi volunteers who are persistent in benefiting all beings and continue to clean each intersection no matter the environment.
Persistence in Action Benefits Others and Oneself
The Tzu Chi Service Center is next to a Vietnamese neighborhood. In recent years, Little Saigon, a Vietnamese organization, joined Tzu Chi and helped clean the streets. An all-female group of volunteers cleaned from 5th Street northward to 2nd Street. Although the neighborhood might have a negative reputation, they all went forward, saying that they were determined in their efforts because of the pride they felt wearing the uniform of Tzu Chi volunteers.
Tzu Chi volunteers don’t stop doing “altruistic” things just because an area is reputed to be unsafe. In fact, the more volunteers help others, the happier they are. “When we first started cleaning the streets, we didn’t dare to let our families know, for fear that they would be worried, and for fear that they would say that they help others to clean instead of cleaning their own homes.”
Volunteer Miao Hua Li shared that after seeing the selflessness of fellow Tzu Chi volunteers she has gained a deeper understanding and compassion for those in need in the community. She knows that she has changed and grown in kindness through volunteering, her family is now able to understand her actions, and she now cleans the streets with more strength and joy.
More than twenty Tzu Chi volunteers met to clean the streets. They placed bags of garbage on street corners so garbage trucks could easily come and collect them.
The two decades of service and diligent work have built a strong bond between the Service Center and the city government. Tzu Chi volunteers uphold the goal of “doing right for the madness and panic,” continue to carry out free clinics, food distributions, or emergency relief, and continue to reach out to more neighbors in need so that everyone can get assistance in a timely manner.