Written by Sung-Jan Lin
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Maggie Morgan
On December 18th, 2021, Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Regional Office joined forces with the Houston Food Bank to offer relief to families struggling to put food on their tables. The two organizations, long-term partners since August 2020, set up shop at Tzu Chi’s Jingsi Hall near Chinatown in Houston, Texas.
Tzu Chi volunteers have been especially busy since the outbreak of COVID-19. Food insecurity drastically increased as a result of the pandemic, and the already-existing pressures burdening low-income families reached devastating new levels. Volunteers were able to alleviate some of that stress by distributing food and supplies to community members in need.
The December 18 event was the last food distribution of 2021 and Tzu Chi humanitarians were able to provide relief during a notoriously difficult time of year. The Christmas holiday can be extremely taxing on individuals who are already struggling to make ends meet, but COVID-19 added an even heavier burden to the shoulders of those in financial crisis. While many Americans look forward to celebrating and exchanging gifts, others fight to keep a roof over their head. With inflation at its highest rate since the 1990s, a Deloitte survey reported a record 11.5% of citizens stated they’d be skipping out on the holiday altogether.
The Tzu Chi food distribution was a much-needed effort to address this growing problem within a pandemic, giving families a Christmas miracle a few days ahead of time. The spirited volunteers didn’t stop with Christmas cheer as they also took the opportunity of being together to record a video sending their Lunar New Year’s greetings to Master Cheng Yen.
Innovations in Volunteer Efforts During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic changed every single aspect of our everyday lives. We were forced as a society to find new ways to go about our daily functions while making safety a priority. Many of us were left clueless about how to best approach even the most ordinary situations and were exploring ways to meet our needs while avoiding the virus. This uncharted territory expanded into the philanthropic world as volunteers were presented with the challenge of providing assistance to communities in need while keeping everyone safe.
Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region faced these obstacles head-on and didn’t let the pandemic stop them from changing lives. Beginning in 2020, volunteers introduced a “drive-thru” food distribution program to meet the needs of hungry families while maintaining distance and preventing crowd contact. Tzu Chi strives to do what’s right in the right way; volunteers were able to serve as an example of how humanitarian aid can continue during these unprecedented times and we can provide for others while still prioritizing health and safety.
The UN reported that one tenth of the population (about 811 million people) was undernourished last year, likely due to the fallout of COVID-19. The report listed several action-driven initiatives for policymakers to consider, the first being concerned with humanitarian aid: “Integrate humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict areas – for example, through social protection measures to prevent families from selling meager assets in exchange for food.”
The Heart of Tzu Chi USA’s Mission
Altruism and believing in the interconnectivity of all beings motivate the work behind Tzu Chi USA and its volunteers. Giving back to those in need is a beautiful thing in and of itself, but Tzu Chi USA goes farther into the plight of humanity by addressing spiritual poverty.
Rooted in Buddhism, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission is to provide relief to human suffering on every level of its existence. Our struggles manifest in several forms, leaving some in need of outside assistance to get them back on their feet. However, when we are rich in spirit and understand the universal truths we are all fighting to uncover, we can better face our material struggles as they arise.
At the core of every initiative, Tzu Chi USA makes sure to answer their “why”. Examining the reason behind what we’re doing and understanding our intentions helps give purpose to our lives. Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, was motivated to find meaning in her own life after overcoming personal struggles and existential crisis. The path of self-discovery led her to dedicate her life to Buddhism and philanthropy, finding the elusive “purpose” in serving others.
The act of service work is a mutually beneficial exchange; volunteers find fulfillment in helping their fellow human man and spreading the teachings of the Buddha while beneficiaries receive support in material and spiritual forms. Compassion is the currency of Tzu Chi and our teachings strive to keep those we serve in a state of abundance.
Efforts like our community food drives are merely scratching the surface of what Tzu Chi and its volunteers aim to do. The organization strives to encourage others to live with self-awareness, intention, and mindfulness. With every act of service and volunteer effort, Tzu Chi hopes to spread the teachings of the Buddha that are universally applicable and profoundly meaningful.
Our lives are full of questions that will remain unanswered, but we can find many of the answers within ourselves. We do know that impermanence on Earth is something we must all face, and that struggle is part of this fleeting existence. Why not try to make our time here being a loving part of the whole?
Dharma Master Cheng Yen sums up this notion beautifully in saying, “Life is so short, and is as transient as dew or lightning. But one can do many good deeds in one’s very short life. A little kind act can make a great impact; a little evil act can bring great disaster to the world.”
Tzu Chi USA has been fortunate in having its message resonate with a wide array of individuals and institutions, especially over the past year of tumultuous uncertainty. Local members of congress, schools, and youth and junior organizations have joined the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers, and through events like the food distributions, they are able to immerse themselves in the philosophy of Tzu Chi and propel our mission of helping the world.
Inclusivity and valuing all beings is another foundational belief of Tzu Chi USA, so it is incredibly fitting that the Southern Regional Office has welcomed many new volunteers of different races and religious beliefs. The December 18 food drive brought together volunteers both old and new, joining together to solidify their dedication to the Tzu Chi mission and preparing to bring in another year centered in the same beliefs.
The charitable activities are physical displays of what the organization is made of at its core; we encourage those who participate to always search for the underlying message and intention, devoting themselves to a mindful life and a strong spiritual grounding that will translate into a purposeful existence every single day.
Finding Strength Through Struggle
Many volunteers had made holiday plans as Christmas and New Year’s celebrations loomed around the corner, leaving the event with less manpower than usual. Even with a smaller group of Tzu Chi volunteers, the spirit of giving was in full force and our team rallied to prepare for a successful food drive. Volunteers stayed on task bagging food and supplies while simultaneously offering kindness and well wishes to everyone in attendance. The compassion was palpable and the love overflowing as our team passed out a “Happy New Year” wish to complement the donations.
A lower volunteer count couldn’t break our team’s stride, and neither could inclement weather. The forecast predicted heavy rain after 11 a.m., so Tzu Chi volunteers prepared to weather the storm. Tents were set up to shield attendees and volunteers from the showers, but the severity of the storm was stronger than anticipated.
Almost like a metaphor for the Tzu Chi mission itself, volunteers remained steadfast in their pursuits and brought their own sunshine to the event. Donning raincoats and still dripping wet, the team continued the food drive with smiles on their faces and their hearts open to recipients. Supplies were handed out to community members facing food insecurity, and they left the drive knowing their homes would be a little fuller for the holidays.
There Can't Be A Rainbow Without A Little Rain
No great happiness can be truly appreciated without first withstanding suffering. In order to fully embrace the good that comes into our lives, we must understand the lessons that come with trials and tribulations. The food drive may have been impacted by the weather conditions, but volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure the families in attendance received the help they came for.
Heavy rains and gusty winds threatened to dismantle distribution tents set up to provide shelter, but volunteers quickly reacted by tying the tents together to secure them. The rain did not dampen anyone’s spirits and no amount of turbulence could blow away the volunteers’ determination. As the team remained at their posts and continued distribution through the storm, the recipients who pulled up to the drive could not help their outpouring of gratitude. Beneficiaries were moved to see the resilience of the volunteers and offered their heartfelt thanks for Tzu Chi’s hard work and dedication. This type of exchange is the very essence of Tzu Chi: a moment of connectedness and compassion from one human being to another.
The circle of giving continued outside of volunteer and recipient interaction as team members who weren’t working outside prepared to support their soaking wet counterparts. The diligent but drenched distribution workers were welcomed into the clubhouse with towels and a cup of tea, proving once again how contagious the spirit of Tzu Chi can be.
Penny Liu, the volunteer in charge of the distribution, remarked, “Although the weather is uncontrollable, we will be improving our efforts to include betters back-up plans. I appreciate and admire the volunteers for their perseverance. They showed true dedication in a difficult situation.”
Wen Hui Tsai, another distribution volunteer, saw in all volunteers what “confidence comes from the wind and rain” means, and the heavy rain and gusty winds cannot quench the volunteers’ earnestness to give out love.
Although she was drenched like everyone else, Wen Hui Tsai was still grateful to have had the chance to participate in the food drive and to witness Tzu Chi’s great love and compassion firsthand.
The last food drive of 2021 proved to be symbolic of the year all of us have endured. No matter what circumstances are thrown our way, it seems that a spirit of giving and an altruistic mindset will see us safely through to the other side. As we approach another year of uncertainty and a growing population of those impacted by food insecurity, Tzu Chi’s Southern Region has proven that nothing will stop its volunteers from helping those in need–especially not a little rain.