Written by Alan Chen
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang and Maggie Morgan
Thanksgiving to the United States is what the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is to China. These important days mean getting together with family and friends, celebrating love and camaraderie in a grandiose way. COVID-19 had a way of putting a major damper on events that were traditionally something to look forward to.
Holidays became a point of stress rather than comfort for people across the globe, as unemployment rates slashed incomes at an alarming rate. Not only were families struggling to pay their bills, their mental health was deteriorating. The American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a survey of over 9,000 adults from low-income, minority families and, not surprisingly, found their adversities only worsened during the pandemic.
Beyond the more obvious blows that the pandemic delivered, mental health and overall well-being have been a major cause for concern. Dealing with a stressful circumstance, day after day, puts a person at risk for severe depression and anxiety. Adding a slew of mandates that inadvertently wipe out resources you once counted on can make the existing stress levels sky rocket.
California’s National Alliance on Mental Illness published an article outlining ways people may struggle more with holiday stressors during the pandemic. The organization had previously conducted a study that found 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse. In order to combat the inevitable depression that accompanies the holidays during a pandemic, NAMI outlined ways people can boost their mental health.
One of the most compelling pieces of advice offered revolved around gratitude. A quote from NPR was referenced in the article, stating:
This revelation is something the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation already implements in their work, and it is clear that both volunteers and the recipients they serve have found the benefits of gratitude.
Tzu Chi USA knew that families might not have the financial means to prepare the Thanksgiving meals they had become accustomed to, so volunteers vowed to change that reality.
San Bernardino Witnesses Soaring Unemployment Rate
San Bernardino, a large city in Southern California, has been the poorest city in the state in recent years. In just one year, the unemployment rate jumped from 3.9% to 9.1% as of November 2021. Statistics can help give a very vague picture of an area’s current financial climate, but some hard-hitting stories explore the real picture behind the numbers. The reports we read and data we are presented does not always accurately reflect how a community is faring in the midst of a crisis. An article in The Sun dove into the reality behind what California residents are facing.
These kinds of figures are extremely relevant to already-vulnerable communities like San Bernardino, where residents were faced with immeasurable financial losses as pressures of the pandemic became increasingly heavier.
In November 2016, Tzu Chi USA partnered with the San Bernardino School District to start a food distribution project at the Indian Springs High School in Southern California. In January 2017, Juanita B Jones Elementary was added as a second site. Pandemic mandates halted the distributions that had been in place for years, starting in February of 2021. To make up for the lack in aid opportunities, a monthly distribution of fruits and vegetables was initiated at Jones Elementary in May.
Tzu Chi’s efforts in San Bernardino have become a huge pillar of support for low-income residents in the city. Having become familiar with the consistency and reliability of the distribution, many beneficiaries arrive hours before to get their place in line. Tzu Chi’s reputation for dedication and efficiency landed them an invite to Del Vallejo Leadership and Steam Academy at the end of 2018 where they organized a special food bank for low-income families of the district.
This fall, Del Vallejo High School contacted Tzu Chi and asked if volunteers could provide a fruit and vegetable distribution before Thanksgiving. The team was honored to be able to bring their services to the district once again, especially as the pandemic loomed over so many families’ holidays like a dark cloud.
Tzu Chi USA worked with the school to assess statistics of their population’s financial and housing situation. The team confirmed that a staggering 95% of residents in the district are considered low-income families, and a select percentage of them are housing insecure.
It was evident that these families didn’t have urgent needs only on Thanksgiving, and that their situations required a higher level of attention. In addition to the distribution at Jones Elementary School, Tzu Chi volunteers decided to host an additional winter relief event. On November 22, volunteers distributed 200 vegetarian meals at Del Vallejo Middle School. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation seeks to bring relief in ways that are multifaceted and long-lasting, going far beyond addressing the immediate needs of people they come into contact with. Stringing in their message of relieving suffering from all beings, volunteers were able to raise awareness about vegetarianism and its benefits. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation seeks to leave its beneficiaries with a deeper knowledge of the world around them and a spirit of compassion that will carry them through even the most hopeless of situations.
Return to Del Vallejo High School
Tzu Chi returned to Del Vallejo Leadership and Steam Academy and, even though years had passed, they received a warm welcome from the school’s superintendent. School officials gathered alongside volunteers, taking part in the food distribution that would help so many parents and students they see everyday. The school’s principal, two deputy principals, and more than a dozen faculty members and even students rolled up their sleeves to start giving back to their community.
Whether it was greeting families, guiding traffic, or putting together boxes of fruits and vegetables, everyone on site worked together to offer nutrition with a side of hope. Cold winds blew in the background, but Tzu Chi volunteers’ sincerity helped warm the hearts of recipients and team members alike.
Jackie Maner, Principal of Del Vallejo Leadership and Steam Academy, dove right in when she arrived, getting busy putting food on the truck.
Principal Maner offered her thanks, saying:
Ana Ramirez, the school’s bilingual community resource worker, is in charge of seeking assistance from various resources to help support low-income families. Ana was responsible for reaching out to Tzu Chi USA regarding the school’s need for aid. On the day of the event she was front and center, helping individuals on site receive translation services.
Ana Ramirez, Community Resource Worker of Del Vallejo Leadership and Steam Academy
Promote Tzu Shao Tutoring Service
Suong Chang, the volunteer team lead, introduced the Tzu Shao Tutoring Team (TSTT), an initiative of the Tzu Chi Youth Association, to the school’s district supervisors. Chang explained that TSTT is composed of volunteer students who strive to uphold an enthusiastic attitude and a kind, compassionate heart. The tutors provide one-on-one learning for primary school students in remote and low-income communities. Our volunteers have the capacity to cover a wide array of curriculum including subjects literature, history, mathematics and science.
These services are critical for students who live in low-income and under-served communities like those from San Bernardino County. Ed100 published an article with astonishing facts regarding how financially-challenged students perform in school.
Suong Chang also encouraged the volunteers to speak with the residents and, on the eve of Thanksgiving, attract more people to rally together in the spirit of giving. Kelly Lin, another volunteer, led the registration team. She explained that in addition to assisting people sign up, the team would also distribute masks to residents, provide volunteer registration forms, and introduce attendees to Tzu Chi and its philosophies. Neighborhood residents were enlightened to learn of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission to spread compassion and end suffering, inspiring them to join the movement and help those in need in their communities.
Suong Chang noted that timing a distribution event right before the holiday was significant to both volunteers and the public alike. Recipients were able to lessen their loads during a stressful time and attendees had the opportunity to see what a difference Tzu Chi’s work makes in the lives of others. After witnessing the success of the event, a total of 14 local residents signed up to serve as volunteers. Chang was hopeful that more people would be recruited to give back, and that Tzu Shao could partner with the school to set up student tutoring courses.
Helping Residents Prepare For the Holiday
Virginia Elizondo, a member of a seven-person household, arrived at the distribution site to pick up food for her family. Upon pulling up, Virginia’s car battery died. As the car in front of her had moved forward to collect food, she was stuck and anxiety jumped into the driver’s seat.
Tzu Chi volunteer Fuhsing Kuo noticed Virginia was broken down, and he immediately drove over and jumped her battery. Meanwhile, another group of volunteers brought out two boxes of food and put them in her car. Up and running again, Virginia smiled and said these donations helped her family a lot, and she thanked the volunteers for their assistance.
Tracy Castro, a donation recipient, said that she came to the school to receive free meals three days a week. Tracy learned about Tzu Chi’s food distribution activities and on Thanksgiving Eve she came to pick up goods that would greatly reduce her burden in preparing a holiday meal.
Juan Valdivia’s children go to the school, and he was happy that his family received the notice of the event. Juan was very grateful to Tzu Chi USA and its volunteers for donating so much food and time to help families in his community, and to help him feed his children.
The global pandemic has tried and tested our spirits in so many ways, throwing countless obstacles in front of us that we had never faced before. Every one of us experienced the waves of instability in our own ways. Whether we experienced a financial crisis, deterioration in physical and mental health, or an overall lack of control in our lives, COVID-19 has proven to be a virus with symptoms far beyond those we could have predicted. Being an individual with an already taxing home life, struggling to put food on your table or keep a roof above your child’s head, is next to impossible during these unprecedented times. A spirit of resilience and a hopeful heart can take one far, but additional aid from others has become a necessity.
The gratitude that colored the faces of those at the event was seen equally in recipients and volunteers. Love, compassion, understanding, and giving while expecting nothing in return are all gifts that are invaluable and unforgettable. The volunteers truly experienced Master Cheng Yen’s teaching: “The meaning of life is in service, and the value of life is in dedication.”
Join the happiness movement.