Written by Leslie Shieh
Edited by Chenglin Li and Maggie Morgan
Translated by Ariel Chan
On August 13, 2022, Tzu Chi volunteers were busy packing fruits and vegetables to distribute at Costano Elementary School in East Palo Alto, California. Team members started early in the morning as a refreshing breeze cooled them down on the summer day. A long line of families had already formed, ready to receive healthy food to fuel their young learners.
The current state of affairs, especially economic instability, resulted in a larger crowd than Tzu Chi volunteers had served before. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than one in ten people in East Palo Alto experience severe financial struggle. To meet the needs of the community, team members sped up their preparatory work and distribution process. No matter the obstacle, regardless of the demand, Tzu Chi and its volunteers strive to figure out a way to deliver hope and peace of mind.
A Whole New Year Ahead: Back-to-School Distribution Hands Out Supplies
Across the school’s campus, Tzu Chi volunteers were putting on another event for students. The Back to School drive distributed school supplies, clothes, shoes, backpacks, and masks to help pupils get ready for a new year ahead. Many low-income families aren’t able to prioritize school supplies over feeding and housing their families; Tzu Chi knows that these communities members are under tremendous pressure, so volunteers work hard to alleviate parents’ burdens and to allow children to focus on education.
The process began with a team of 20 volunteers who reached out to individual families for specific information. Shoe size, clothing size and personal preferences were all taken into account to make sure children had their needs met and were happy with their new gear.
After contacting the families, volunteers shopped for the requested items for over a month, collecting pieces one by one. The final step was extremely gratifying as the team put together prepared two tops, one pair of shoes, and a new backpack for each of the 100 students.
Several recipient students attended Belle Haven Elementary School, and recognized Tzu Chi volunteers from their service at the gift-exchange Panther Paw Store. When they arrived to pick up their back-to-school supplies at the distribution event, they saw the familiar faces of Tzu Chi volunteers once again, and ran up to greet them. With another school year around the corner, they knew they’d see one another again soon.
Gearing Up for a Healthier Planet: Volunteers Educate on Composting
In addition to the food and supplies distributions, volunteers also utilized the venue to spread awareness about sustainability. Environmental Protection is one of Tzu Chi USA’s eight Global Footprints; the opportunity served as an innovative way to show how our behavior can impact the planet.
In January of this year, the state’s government implemented a mandatory composting law for residential food waste (the largest of its kind nationwide). All California residents are required to place food waste into designated containers rather than normal trash cans. By taking the small step to compost, California’s residents can make a big impact. The result of unnecessary food waste being sent to a landfill increases methane production from decay, further damaging the atmosphere.
The team set up a booth to educate those in attendance about how to compost at home to make sure they’re abiding by California’s new legislation. Volunteers went over items that can get complicated when it comes to composting (like oil, tea bags, and biodegradable to-go boxes) as well as demonstrated how to properly handle waste before placing it in bins.
Volunteers handed out composting instructions and compostable bags to families so they could bring their lesson home and put it into action. Recipients were also reminded that the waste initiative will be mandated in 2024, and those who don’t compost correctly will be fined. Tzu Chi volunteers are dedicated to continue educating the community on this project for the planet; residents will be better equipped to habitually reduce waste and give back to the Earth.
Love in Many Forms: Families Experiencing Hardship, Tragedy Find Peace
Volunteers always seem to have special interactions at each distribution, ones that they’ll likely never forget. The school supplies distribution proved to be no different; the team was especially touched by three siblings who came with their father, Francisco, to prepare for the new year ahead. The siblings are students at Belle Haven Elementary, a school that participates in Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus Program. Diego (first), Mateo (fifth grade), and Annabel (ninth grade) are under long-term care through Tzu Chi. At the end of last year, Francisco’s partner passed away suddenly. The children were left to grieve the loss of a parent and Francisco would now take on the challenging job of caring for them alone.
Francisco is a cleaner and his income makes it difficult to fully make ends meet. The family lives in a rental home remodeled from a garage and Francisco told volunteers their current housing situation was worrisome. The father of three was concerned the landlord would be unwilling to continue lending his house to them, leaving the family homeless. Volunteers immediately told Francisco to wait until after the distribution so they could do anything they could to find assistance.
Ana, a single-parent, came into Tzu Chi’s care in May 2020 due to the pandemic. Ana worked several cleaning jobs to support her family, but a single income proved to be insufficient. In August of 2021, Anna’s son, Abel, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The senior in highschool was suffering from severe headaches and cancer was the last thing they expected to be the cause.
Ana was forced to quit her job in order to take care of Abel. Tzu Chi volunteers visited the family regularly and subsidized their monthly living expenses – like groceries; Ana’s shopping list usually includes organic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains for Abel to fight his disease through nutrition. Though Abel’s condition was stable for a time, it quickly began to deteriorate, before the young man’s untimely passing in March of 2022. Tzu Chi will continue to stand by Ana’s side as they offer support through the grieving process and fondly remember their time knowing Abel.
On the day of the distribution, Ana brought her youngest daughter, Yuliana, to collect back-to-school supplies. The pair also grabbed a Bamboo Bank full of change to donate to Tzu Chi. This was Ana’s fourth time has donating the Bamboo Bank, and she said, “I am very grateful to Tzu Chi for helping me during this difficult time, so I want to help others with them.”
Ana had to rush back to work, so she and her daughter reluctantly said goodbye to their Tzu Chi family. Like a river, the rapids of life come and go, whether or not we are ready. This fundamental truth is one that Ana has now not only lived through, but has found love inside of it. Even through tragedy, she does not stop thinking of others, filling the Bamboo Bank in hopes of touching another family whose hearts may be breaking. The power of this love is ceaseless, and, like a river – it will continue keep flowing.