Written by Xinqian Zheng
Edited by Maggie Morgan
South Seattle’s Hanover Apartments and Maple Crest Apartments underwent severe fire damage in July and August respectively. The Hanover fire displaced 85 residents and left four injured, two of them were in critical condition, and the Maple Crest latter left three dead. The communities were grief-stricken and many unhoused. Two buildings were completely destroyed, swallowing many residents’ belongings overnight.
FEMA published data stating “that each year, from 2017 to 2019, an estimated average of 106,700 multifamily residential building fires were reported to fire departments in the United States.” The findings went on to say that the cause of most fires were accidental and 74% originated from cooking mishaps. In such close quarters, it is likely the flames won’t be contained and the FEMA study reported “in 31% of non-confined multifamily residential building fires, the fire extended beyond the room of origin.”
Within two weeks of the fire, Tzu Chi’s Northwest Regional Office sent volunteers to Seattle. The team quickly completed a disaster assessment and handed out cash cards to survivors in hopes of helping them rebuild their lives. Four months have passed since the event, and volunteers have been reflecting on how the impacted households have been progressing.
In November, Tzu Chi volunteers started contacting families to check in and find out more about their immediate needs. The team went into the community, collecting second-hand materials to donate to those in need. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s intentions meld charitable giving with moral principles and spiritual teachings. Our Global Footprints are reflected in all that we do as our team seeks to work towards a greater purpose with each event. Second-hand donations fall into the incredibly important Environmental Protection category, ensuring our work encourages others to “a simpler lifestyle and reducing our carbon footprint is crucial towards living in harmony with Mother Earth.”
On the morning of December 4, 22 Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at the Tukwila Community Center with supplies packed up and cash cards in hand. The team thought critically about what necessities a family might need to build their homes back and surveyed individuals about what they were lacking. After a traumatic event like a fire, many families go without essential items we may not even consider in our daily lives.
Volunteers packed up and distributed kitchen utensils, clothes, stationery and other supplies requested by the affected communities. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation seeks to provide emotional security and spiritual comfort to those who are suffering, so the team also prepared stuffed animals, dolls and Christmas calendars for children, Poinsettias, and traditional Italian Panettone for the residents.
The event gathered together 22 families who greeted the volunteers like old friends; the survivors happily shared how they were navigating the road of restoration. The dialogue was not one of defeat or sorrow, but of family and hope as they all caught up and celebrated a sense of communal joy.
Suzzette Auimatagi, a single mother of two, is a resident of the Hanover Apartments. Auimatagi has been busy with more than just post-fire tasks during the past four months; she was working to complete her nursing assistant course and, with hard work and dedication, has obtained her license. Although Suzzette still has to work two jobs to support her family, she said that she is lucky to have help from her loved ones and Tzu Chi volunteers to give her support in standing up again.
When the Maple Crest fire broke out, Clinton Buston didn’t think twice about rescuing his neighbors, even if it meant sacrificing his own safety. Clinton and his fiancé, Angela Mills, had a hard time after the fire. The two were without the most basic of needs, even struggling to get a warm coat when the winter came. Fortunately the couple finally found a new place to call home, ending their months of uncertainty with a beautiful close: a safe Christmas.
Clinton and Angela were able to get fit, warm winter clothes at the distribution. Although total recovery is a ways away, their life is slowly rebuilding with Tzu Chi’s help and their own perseverance. The two expressed their gratitude and found inspiration to turn it into action.
“Every day, when we come home from work, we will put coins into Tzu Chi’s bamboo piggy bank, trying to fill it up, hoping to give back to the society”, Angela said.
Bryan Alabarda, a survivor of the Hanover Apartment fire, was wearing a Tzu Chi volunteer vest this time around. When Tzu Chi contacted him to hear about his progress, Brian decided to join them in helping those who had suffered alongside him.
“Knowing Tzu Chi’s participation and help in the community, and knowing that they planned such an activity today, I wanted to participate in the volunteer service and do my best to give back to the community.” Brian said.
Brian updated the team on the strides he’d made since the fire, saying that he had successfully moved into his new home a few weeks before. It is never easy to rebuild your life after any sort of devastation as it takes a toll psychologically, emotionally and materially, but Brian said he believes that everything will be fine.
The flames were a striking reminder of the impermanence of life, but it also ignited the connection that exists between all humans, even strangers. The volunteers hadn’t forgotten about the individuals from the apartment fires, and after checking in they were elated to hear everyone’s journey towards recovery.
Kindness and compassion can grow the same way as plants; they take root and sprout in the community as long as the seeds are tended to. It was apparent this is what happened in the Southern Seattle communities with Tzu Chi Northwest Regional Office’s distribution event; disaster-stricken families who once needed a helping hand have now joined the Tzu Chi team themselves.
This organic and circular love is a life force, one we do not always observe but we always need. As the Dalai Lama XIV said in The Art of Happiness, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”