Hope For The Holidays: Volunteers Visit Underprivileged Communities

Northwest  |  March 11, 2022
Tzu Chi volunteers in Silicon Valley donate Christmas gifts and bags of household cleaning supplies to low-income farm-worker families, women and children who have been domestically abused, and vulnerable elders in Watsonville. Photography/Andy Chiang

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Tzu Chi volunteers’ roles are constantly evolving depending on the situation at hand. Some events call for sourcing and packing supplies while others are tailored to distribution and spreading awareness. On December 12, the team added a new duty to their list: Santa Claus introductions. Tzu Chi volunteers led two shy, young children to meet Santa Claus himself. The excitement eventually overpowered the bashfulness as the kids faced the camera, opened their hands and cheerfully exclaimed “Merry Christmas!”

The children took photos with Santa Claus. Photography/Andy Chiang

The December day was full of joy and gratitude as the “Spread the Seeds of Love” Christmas distribution event kicked off. Organized jointly by the City of Watsonville and volunteers from Tzu Chi USA Headquarters, the event delivered festivity and support to the local community. 

Fourteen Tzu Chi volunteers gifted Christmas presents and household cleaning materials to low-income farm-worker families, women and children who had been domestically abused, and vulnerable populations. Touching the spirits of the most tender individuals is especially important during the holiday season. Social isolation is often cited as one of the biggest risk factors for mental deterioration during the holidays. With COVID-19 forcing us to detach even more, it was essential for volunteers to connect with individuals and communities who were struggling. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, it was found that 38% of people said “their stress level increased during the holiday season. Participants listed the top stressors: lack of time, lack of money, commercialism, the pressures of gift-giving, and family gatherings.”

This survey was not focused on low-income families or concentrated on marginalized communities; it can be inferred that these percentages would sky rocket as many individuals who the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation serve face these stressors all year, not just for the holidays.

The Washington Post published a piece to uncover more on this inference, and they dug deep. The article stated that: “…low-wage earners who’ve been disproportionately affected by job losses during the coronavirus recession, with 1 in 8 households — or 1 in 6 with children — report[ed] they don’t have enough to eat. Nearly 12 percent of the country is living in poverty…Poverty rates — the U.S. federal poverty level is $26,200 a year for a family of four — have risen the most among Black families, children and those with a high school education or less.”

The poor got poorer, yes, but the rich actually got richer. COVID-19 and its brutal aftermath widened the income gap between families. The piece reported, “…many at the other end of the income scale are actually better off financially than they were before. The pandemic has forced them to cut back on travel, dining out and other discretionary spending. Savings rates have jumped to record highs, leaving more cash to spend for the holidays.” This devastating and stark reality, one the country is just beginning to recover from, is what the newspaper held responsible for what they called the “most unequal holiday in history.”

Tzu Chi volunteers in Silicon Valley cooperate with the city government of Watsonville to care for vulnerable families in the community. Photography/Andy Chiang

The Currency of Love: Tzu Chi’s Bamboo Bank Initiative

This Christmas distribution marked the 19th annual event of its kind for the community. Watsonville City, located in the southern part of the Northern California Bay Area, is a large agricultural production county. A large majority of the residents are from farming families of Hispanic descent. At the end of each year, the Watsonville Municipal Government compiles a list of these families to determine who needs support. After the information is collected, officials hand over the reins over to volunteers from Tzu Chi USA Headquarters. The city has partnered with Tzu Chi for several years in order to coordinate a distribution, gather winter supplies, and send Christmas gifts and compassion to the farm-worker families.

For the 19th year, Tzu Chi volunteers in Silicon Valley have brought Christmas gifts and love to farm-worker families in Watsonville. Photography/Andy Chiang

The emergence of a new COVID variant in Winter of 2021 heightened pandemic health concerns. To cooperate with safety protocols, the distribution event was carried out with a drive-thru model. 

Mandates could provide obstacles, but they would not result in defeat. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and its teams have become innovators on the charitable event front, thinking of out-of-the-box ways to reach the communities they serve. Families were able to drive to Watsonville Mayor’s Center on Fifth Street, collect Christmas gifts from Tzu Chi volunteers, and revel in the spirit of holiday giving (even from their cars).

Elisa and her husband drove their two children to the event where Santa Claus hand-delivered the family Christmas gifts and Tzu Chi volunteers offered bags of household supplies. Spanish translators volunteered on site to help break down the language barrier; one came forward to give Elisa the Tzu Chi English Monthly Magazine and a Bamboo Bank. The Buddhist Tzu Chi’s Bamboo Bank Initiative is a profound way for recipients to one day pay it forward. Beneficiaries put away funds that they can one day offer to those struggling, just as they had been before. When she received a bank, a memory flashed in Elisa’s mind; she had forgotten to bring the Bamboo Bank she had received at last year’s event.

Many people would have promised to bring the donation next time, thank volunteers, and be on their way–but not Elisa. Twenty minutes later, Elisa, her husband and their children pulled back up to 5th Street. The car pulled over and Elisa rolled down the window, reaching out to hand over a Bamboo Bank full of coins to the Tzu Chi volunteers.

She said with a smile in her eyes:

(After I got the Bamboo Bank last year,) I told my children to save the excess change every day and then donate it to this organization (Tzu Chi) that brings us gifts each year.

Year after year, a moving scene like Elisa’s plays out before the volunteers’ eyes. The teachings and mission of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation are quiet yet powerful, peaceful yet profound, and it appears the communities we serve can tap into this energy quite effortlessly. The simple act of both giving and receiving love and kindness is always flowing throughout Tzu Chi events and into the hearts of each person in attendance.

Elisa's family gives Tzu Chi volunteers a Bamboo Bank filled with coins in order to return their love to others in need. Photography/Joy Chen

Revere Your Elders: Supporting Generations Who Came Before

The outbreak of the pandemic had Watsonville government officials adding victims of domestic abuse and orphaned elders to the list of residents in need of support. The municipality entrusted Tzu Chi volunteers to bolster public backing. The team set out to encourage philanthropists from the Silicon Valley area to rally around their neighbors in need.

Tzu Chi volunteers explain the origin of Tzu Chi's Bamboo Bank and the spirit of love to the public after presenting the material package. Photography/Andy Chiang

“We seniors are really grateful to the Watsonville City government and Tzu Chi volunteers for bringing us Christmas gifts. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart.” 

Two elderly women greeted volunteers at the Watsonville Senior Center on behalf of the community of 49 disadvantaged seniors; the Center’s residents had received packages and warm blankets from Tzu Chi USA and they wanted to express their gratitude. The women stood in the lobby of the community senior center, in front of a brightly lit tree, and placed their hands on their hearts.

Representatives of the senior community thank Tzu Chi volunteers for their care. Photography/Harrison Lin

One of the women representing the Center, Mrs. Teresa Chavez, could not hide the joy in her eyes as she expressed her gratitude:

In the past years, I have never received a blessing like this. Your donations to elders since the start of the pandemic up to now have been wonderful and we are truly grateful.

Their Home for the Holidays: Volunteers Visit Women and Children’s Shelter

A group of Tzu Chi USA Headquarters volunteers left the Fifth Street event and headed two blocks away to the Monarch Services Center, an organization that offers immediate crisis response to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

Alexandra Rincon, a staff member at the Center, represented the temporary residents and assisted Tzu Chi volunteers in handing out Christmas gifts to women and children.

Alexandra, on behalf of families of abused women and children, receives supply bags from Tzu Chi volunteers. Photography/Andy Chiang

Tzu Chi volunteers conveyed their genuine interest in working with the Monarch Center to extend their circle of compassion. The team wants to find ways to care for temporary residents and groups in need within the community; Whether that is by organizing free clinics, activities related to daily life assistance, or offering more long-term, one-on-one support, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation hopes to align themselves with this essential service.

The staff of the shelter thank Tzu Chi volunteers for bringing daily cleaning supplies to help the community’s women and children. Photography/Andy Chiang

Alexandra gushed about working with Tzu Chi volunteers and was grateful to have the end-of-year gifts before Christmas to disperse to families in the shelter.

We, together, have brought joy and Christmas spirit to these women and children. When these families who have been abused were struggling, the gifts brought by Tzu Chi volunteers undoubtedly bring happiness into their lives.

Volunteers Make a Vow: An Annual Christmas Visit

The gifts for the annual Watsonville Christmas distribution were planned and prepared by volunteers from Tzu Chi USA Headquarters in collaboration with teachers, students and parents of Tzu Chi Academy at Cupertino. 

Students at Tzu Chi Academy at Cupertino serve as distribution volunteers, serving farm-worker families in need. Photography/Andy Chiang

Recipients were coming from families consisting of different age groups and needs. To account for the variety of supplies required to support these farming families, Tzu Chi volunteer, Sonia Liu, said, “Parents (in the Academy) would choose families with children who are similar to their own as recipients so they know what suitable gifts to buy for them.” Sonia led the coordination, taking into account the differing types of support that would benefit each family member.

Tzu Chi volunteer Sonia Liu works hard to coordinate the volunteers in preparing Christmas gifts and supplies. Photography/Andy Chiang

As always, challenges presented themselves almost immediately. Preparing supply bags proved to be a difficult feat due to supply shortages, but the team powered through and found a way. To work around scarcities in retail locations, volunteers pre-ordered products online. There was also the risk of receiving damaged goods or incomplete orders, something that cannot be avoided when buying online. In each 15-pound bag of daily necessities, volunteers were to pack laundry detergent, shower gel, toothpaste and several pairs of thick socks. 

More than a dozen Tzu Chi volunteers needed to ensure all packages were complete and only had a short period of time to do so. Sonia commented on the obstacle saying: 

“We plan to pack all the materials needed for Sunday’s activities on Saturday. On Friday night, I was still going to various stores to replenish the insufficient or damaged goods, then sorting out items at home, and making sure the supplies for each household are arranged.”

Tzu Chi volunteers in Silicon Valley, West San Jose, mobilize to pack bags of household cleaning supplies. Photography/Judy Liao

Preparation was long, delivery was full of roadblocks, and working hours were very late. Despite it all, that Sunday at the event site was powered by love. One by one, arranged according to family size, gifts were placed by Fifth Street in Watsonville, waiting for the parents and children of each farming family to bring home.

Tzu Chi volunteers work together to load boxes of gift supplies into the car and send the gifts to farming families in the South as promised. Photography/Judy Liao

Wishes of a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year festively floated from person to person as volunteers and recipients basked in human connection. Tzu Chi USA Headquarters volunteers smiled and waved goodbye to the families who came. Right before Christmastime next year, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and its team will be present once again; volunteers will stand on Fifth Street in Watsonville, commemorating two decades of spreading connection, compassion, and support just in time for the holidays.

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