Back-to-School, Stress Free: Volunteers Stuff BackPacks With School Supplies

National Headquarters  |  February 28, 2022
Tzu Chi USA prepares these stationery supplies and packs them into school backpacks. Photo/Shuli Lo

Written by Wesley Tsai, Sabrina Ho
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang and Maggie Morgan

For quite some time, Tzu Chi has held Back-to-School backpack distributions at Alhambra High School in Southern California. But in 2020, the tradition was interrupted as COVID-19 and a fire at the school caused the campus to shut down.

The Community Collaborates

As we look back on the deeply penetrating damage the global pandemic has caused, we realize how much of it has leaked inside of our homes; we lost jobs, took a critical hit to our incomes, and found ourselves in financial dilemmas of disastrous proportions. Entire families were left scraping to eat and unable to pay rent, while others lost their residences entirely. While churches, schools and community institutions rallied to provide for neighbors in need, there are not enough hands and too many mouths to feed. 

Even before the pandemic hit, students were returning to school empty-handed and ill-prepared. A 2019 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty reported that an estimated 15 million children are impacted by their lack of financial resources. If parents are unable to give their child a home to live in or a meal to eat, how can they possibly be expected to provide something as secondary as a notebook for school?

Teach For America published an article with a realistic and terrifying breakdown of what is known as the Huntington Backpack Index. The index is meant to gauge costs of what parents are expected to pay each year for school supplies per child, and the dollar amounts are truly mind-boggling. 

The article cited the following statistics as average costs:

  • $1,017 for elementary school supplies, extracurricular fees, and technology
  • $1,277 for middle school supplies, extracurricular fees, and technology
  • $1,668 for high school supplies, extracurricular fees, and technology

With their finger on the pulse and their ears to the ground, Alhambra Teachers Association set out to tackle this problem that lived so very near to their hearts and inside their classrooms. With the help of local charitable organizations, the school set out to collect 1,000 food items and conduct a large-scale material distribution event. With help of the city government, other school districts, and charitable organizations, the fundraiser was in full swing, slated to be held at the Alhambra City Hall on August 29.

Our volunteers wanted to join the collective effort, so with food items having been accounted for, the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters decided to outfit 500 school children from underserved families with school supplies and a $30 cash card.

David Mejia, who grew up in the city of Alhambra, thanks Tzu Chi volunteers for their long-term care in the community. Photo/Shuli Lo

The pandemic has led to many more people seeking help. Although the school has reopened, parents and students are still afraid of being infected when they return to school. Therefore, we must help each other, and more importantly, spread love and care. Because the pandemic is getting more and more serious, this time the distribution has switched to open-space with distribution on the blocked streets, which allow people to drive-thru to collect the supplies and avoid getting off their car to reduce the risk of infection.

The Next Generation of Altruism

When COVID-19 imposed an obstacle for aid distribution, volunteers of the San Gabriel Valley Service Center were steadfast in finding suitable locations for a new drive-through site. The center was in constant contact with the Alhambra School District, hoping to set up food drives under their jurisdiction. These enthusiastic volunteers were contacted to join Tzu Chi’s efforts, and they excitedly signed up to participate.

Tzu Chi volunteers work together to pack the Back-to-School Day backpacks. Photo/Shuli Lo
Volunteers gather to take a group photo for another successful event. Photo/Shuli Lo

On August 22, members of the San Gabriel Valley Service Center united with 22 Tzu Chi Youth Association volunteers (Tzu Shao) and over a dozen parents to gear up for the annual Back-to-School-Day distribution. Volunteer David Chen took the lead as everyone worked together to gather notebooks, binders, memory cards, computers, pencils, scissors, and stationery. This educational assembly line functioned like a class of their own as they unpacked, sorted, and bagged supplies. Tzu Shao volunteers ran task management as they fostered an environment of love, even encouraging parents to roll up their sleeves.

In less than three hours, the collaborative effort had stuffed 500 backpacks. Pandemic-related mandates halted the San Gabriel Valley Service Center from holding their annual  President’s Volunteer Service Award ceremony as planned, but it didn’t stop them from presenting the honor. Everyone was already together and in the spirit of philanthropy, so an impromptu award ceremony was announced on the spot. The center’s head, James Chen, and a volunteer, Sue Chao, presented presidential medals and certificates of appreciation to 22 Tzu Shao volunteers.

An impromptu ceremony was put on and the President’s Volunteer Service Award was presented to Tzu Shao. Photo/Shuli Lo

The Real Number of Those in Need

On distribution day, the motivation was palpable; the sun illuminated the sky, live speakers boosted morale and upbeat music put recipients and volunteers in harmony. Safety was a chief concern, so the event was carried out with health protocols in mind. Drivers followed planned routes and masked volunteers packed cars with supplies. The number of lives that would be impacted became clear as the morning traffic wound around several blocks. People patiently waited with grateful spirits and followed directions to keep a safe distance. The police department offered their assistance by dispatching patrol offices on motorcycles to manage traffic control. Beneficiaries were able to receive food to feed their families with white rice, beans, canned food, and frozen food. Parents were able to properly care for their children by picking up diapers. Students were able to prepare for the school year ahead by grabbing supplies in new backpacks.

The combined efforts of the Mayor of Alhambra, city officials, and education boards made the distribution the largest event in Alhambra in the month of August. Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters Chief Executive Officer, Jackson Chen, and Deputy Chief Executive, Dr. Han Huang, also got involved with distribution and had the opportunity to contribute to a job well done.

On the day of the event, the street closed in front of the distribution in Alhambra City Hall. Photo/Wesley Tsai
Volunteers fold paper lanterns and give them to the residents. Photo/Shuli Lo

James Chen, head of San Gabriel Valley Service Center, noted the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s five years of dedication to the Alhambra School District. From start to finish, Chen was a part of the process and provided excellent leadership to volunteers. He was grateful for each individual volunteer as their efforts contributed to a successful event.

Tammy Scorcia, president of the Alhambra Teachers Association, took time to reflect saying:

“In March, teachers found that many children’s families had no food to eat, and many people lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced so much so that they are unable to feed the children at home. This worries me, so we started to partner with the Asian Youth Center (AYC) to collect and deliver food to families in need every Monday. The number of beneficiaries quickly increased from 50 to nearly 200 households.”

Officers from the local police department were on-site working traffic enforcement on from police motorcycles. Photo/Shuli Lo
Tammy Scasia, president of the Alhambra Teachers Association. Photo/Shuli Lo

An Attitude of Gratitude

Alhambra’s Chief of Police, Timothy Vu, encouraged volunteers to keep returning to help residents: 

“Our police department has been assisting Tzu Chi’s food distribution for a long time. People were very impressed. This time, many organizations came together to give back to our community. The distribution officially started at ten o’clock, but there were already many cars in line at 9 a.m. The police will patrol the scene to protect everyone’s safety and maintain order. We want to thank all the volunteers!”

Jane Anderson, a 14-year member of the Alhambra Unified School District Board of Education, explained that due to the pandemic, the number of neighbors in need has continued to increase. The school district had been looking for new ways to offer assistance, remaining hopeful that the worst was almost over. Many sponsors and members of the school district added hands on deck for the massive amount of relief needed. Anderson knows Tzu Chi’s team well, and expressed her gratitude to volunteers for coming often to contribute to the community.

Tzu Chi has worked with The Alhambra School District for years, providing an array of invaluable services, such as free haircuts, new socks and shoes, clothes, backpacks, stationery, cash cards, and more. It isn’t just appreciated, it is necessary, as the pandemic has only burdened residents of the community even more. The demand for goods has been increasing, and supply needs to rise with it.

Jane Anderson (right) communicates with Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Shuli Lo
A group photo of members of the Alhambra Unified Board of Education and Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Shuli Lo

Patricia Mahony, Assistant Superintendent of the Alhambra School District, said: “The cost of living and numbers of low-income families in the Alhambra School District continue to increase. Many families had lost their jobs. Everyone is worried about food shortages. The distribution of free food and supplies at this time will greatly benefit families in the community, including 500 children who received stationery and backpacks.”

A School Supplies Surprise

Parents who receive cash cards are grateful for the support. Photo/Shuli Lo
A team of volunteers participate in the distribution. Photo/Wesley Tsai

Yuying Li, a single mother, received a notice from the school last year to collect fruit, vegetables, stationery, and backpacks distributed by Tzu Chi volunteers. This year, Yuying Li carpooled with Xuefen He, who was also coming to collect supplies. She pointed out that raising a child alone and supporting a family are very difficult. Since losing her job during the pandemic, life had gotten even more stressful for Yuying Li and her family. The matriarch said that not only has the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation donated essential items and food to her family, but they have provided long-term medical services as well.

Xuefen He, who has three children of her own, struggled to pay for household expenses since her husband had lost his job. The backpack and school supplies provided by Tzu Chi saved money for Xuefen He’s family and she planned to make buy a week’s worth of food with the $30 cash card.

A 6-year-old boy, Eloy Cortes, came with his family to collect supplies. He smiled brightly when he received everything he needed to start the school year on a good foot. Eloy quickly stretched out his small hand and reached into the big bag, as if he were exploring for treasure. As the boy picked out each item, he let out a little scream, elated with the riches he found inside.

The little boy Eloy Cortes takes out school supplies from his new backpack. Photo/Shuli Lo
Carlycia Martinez receives new school supplies. Photo/Shuli Lo

A parent, Weihua Ji, came to pick up a backpack for his son. He said that although children are taking online courses at home, they still needed school supplies to get their work done. Weihua Ji was appreciative of Tzu Chi’s efforts to help him provide for his family.

Carlysia Martinez, a freshman in high school, saw the backpack filled with school supplies, and said happily: “Due to the pandemic, you can’t go out and buy school supplies. These stationeries provided me with a lot of help. “

Whenever COVID-19 and its chaos presented a challenge, Tzu Chi USA only found new and innovative ways to get the work done. A collective effort, a mindful presence, and a creative spirit prove to be unstoppable forces of humanity. Joining with like-minded individuals and discussing solutions does every person’s heart a world of good. As Tzu Chi volunteers have illustrated again and again: the doers of an action always benefit as much as those on the receiving end. Now, more than ever, we must realize that we truly are just one piece of an entire beating heart. We must continue to end suffering for each and every being possible with the intention of healing a broken spirit first. 

Albert Einstein perhaps encapsulated this united front best in saying,

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Every day, we can strive to become a part of the whole, reminding others that they can join us in this pursuit.

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