Snapshots From Behind the Scenes at Wildfire Relief Distributions in Northern California

Northwest  | November 30, 2020
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At the Oroville Local Assistance Center, Brian, a North Complex Fire survivor, has his picture taken beside a photo of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi. Photo/Arthur Chih

Written by Huan Xun Chan
Translated by Huan Xun Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Every house destroyed by wildfire has its own story. Some homes held the mementos and memories of generations, now reduced to charred debris. Others were brand new, poised for chapters of their occupants’ lives to be written inside, moments that never got a chance to begin or become etched in memory. No matter which the case may be, all the displaced survivors currently face the same challenge: What now?

The dramatic changes in disaster survivors’ life circumstances make tissue paper a much-used item, as tears stream down their faces when they ponder everything they have lost, and so unexpectedly. While the warmth of those tears is hardly any comfort, the warmth of love and care offered by people you’ve never even met before does bring hope and solace.

To bring relief to those affected by recent wildfires in Northern California, from Sept. 24 through Oct. 3, Tzu Chi USA volunteers set up a relief station at the Local Assistance Center (LAC) in Oroville. From there, they handed out cash cards as emergency aid and listened to one story after another, offering moral support as people shared what they were going through.

Jesus and Buddha

The efforts of volunteers, guided by the spiritual wisdom and humanitarian vision of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, Tzu Chi’s founder, did have a positive impact and touched hearts. As a case in point, when on September 24, the Putnams listened as a volunteer read Master Cheng Yen’s letter of condolences and blessings to wildfire survivors, the couple burst into tears, and Michael Putnam exclaimed:

I am just blessed by the [Buddhist Tzu Chi] Foundation. I feel all the love [in] the letter that she read. Jesus and Buddha must be brothers.

Michael Putnam, Wildfire Survivor

This is not the first time that the Putnams survived a wildfire. Two years ago, the Camp Fire destroyed their home in the town of Paradise. “So amazing that we have to go through it again. It’s just part of God’s plan,” Jennifer Putnam said pensively. Being impacted twice by wildfires brought the Putnams to reconnect with Tzu Chi volunteers. And in doing so, it helped rekindle their faith in humanity’s ability to address the suffering of others, striving to relieve it.

After receiving a cash card from Tzu Chi USA, the couple plans to find temporary housing, sharing that they’ll be glad to have a roof over their heads again, to shelter from wind and rain. “We don’t really know what we’re doing tomorrow or the next day. We’re just trying to take one day at a time,” Jennifer said.

As for where they’ll choose to live in the future, although the couple loves to be close to nature, they would not want to live in a forest anymore, saying that for them, the woods have become “just a place to visit.”

The Putnams, who lost their home to wildfire a second time, receive disaster relief from Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Huan Xun Chan
Jennifer Putnam cries when thinking about the current situation, where she and her husband are homeless once again after a wildfire. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

Master Cheng Yen, I Love You

Brian came to the Oroville LAC at the appointed time, yet before receiving aid, seeing a poster with a photo of Master Cheng Yen at the end of a hallway, he headed there first, instead. Tzu Chi volunteer Arthur Chih was standing nearby, greeting visitors when he noticed Brian murmuring to the portrait, “Pregnant… hospital… Master Cheng Yen, I love you.”

Arthur would soon learn that Brian had visited Tzu Chi USA’s website beforehand. There, he had discovered how Master Cheng Yen began the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation after seeing a pool of blood on a hospital floor, left by a pregnant woman the medical staff did not treat due to her lack of funds. Helping those in need and relieving suffering would be and remains the foundation’s mission.

After Brian received a cash card, he also got one of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks. Knowing how Tzu Chi’s charity work began with pennies collected in bamboo banks daily to help those in need, he vowed to Master Cheng Yen that after settling down, he would make donations to pay the kindness he had received forward.

Deepening Connections with U.S. Federal Government Agencies

Initially, James “Kevin” Smith, Director of DHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, had an appointment with Minjhing Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, and was set to visit the region’s campus in San Jose. However, due to the eruption of wildfires in Northern California, they changed the meeting location to the LAC in Oroville, where Kevin could observe Tzu Chi USA’s disaster relief in action.

On September 24, as Kevin and his team toured Tzu Chi’s distribution site, they learned about Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s immediate response to the many wildfires occurring in Northern California and the Bay Area. Beyond presenting Tzu Chi USA’s emergency disaster relief activities, Minjhing also outlined the challenges Tzu Chi volunteers had encountered while providing long-term recovery assistance for those affected by 2018’s Camp Fire.

Kevin Smith’s connection with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation only deepened during the meeting, as he had already visited Tzu Chi’s Global Headquarters in Taiwan a few years before, where he had gained a broader understanding of Tzu Chi’s philosophy, missions, and activities. He shared what he knew about Tzu Chi with representatives of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and Cal OES (California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services), who were at the LAC that day.

Going Above and Beyond

Frances Mann is an Oroville resident. After helping a relative who survived the North Complex Fire apply for Tzu Chi USA’s emergency disaster aid, she contacted Tzu Chi USA’s Camp Fire Recovery Resource Center in Chico, which is around 20 miles northwest of Oroville, offering to volunteer during current wildfire relief distributions. And, since September 24, Frances had been part of Tzu Chi’s local volunteer team at the Oroville LAC.

Wearing the Tzu Chi volunteer vest, Frances Mann gladly puts love in action. Photo/Kitty Lu

Before the pandemic, Frances was a volunteer at Oroville Hospital, serving at the front desk and even singing to entertain and relax patients. The experience has helped her become familiar with Tzu Chi’s volunteer duties quickly while she was already good at interacting with the public.

While care recipients wore masks and a transparent shield separated them at times, that didn’t stop Frances from making a heart-to-heart connection, as she told them, “You can’t see behind the mask, but when I talk, my eyes are telling you that I care for you.” She came to the LAC to volunteer every morning and left at lunchtime since her husband recently had surgery, and she had to return home to prepare his meal.

When asked why she felt compelled to volunteer daily, Frances said it was because of “the love I have in my heart for the world.” She continued, stating that “The world needs love right now. We need love, and love will take care of anything else that needs to be taken care of.”

Frances Mann brings attentive care to each wildfire survivor she meets. Photo/Kitty Lu

Nonetheless, Frances did acknowledge that the pandemic’s social distancing measures had dampened people’s ability to express love and care for one another. And although she was meeting many wildfire survivors gripped by negative emotions, she was mindful not to bring that negativity home.

Frances Mann appreciates the opportunity to help the community as a local volunteer with Tzu Chi USA. Photo/Kitty Lu

However, due to her observant and caring nature, what she did bring home was lingering concern about some of the people she met at the LAC. For example, there was one care recipient whom she kept thinking about after leaving the distribution site one day.

The gentleman in question had come to register for aid at Tzu Chi’s intake station, but unfortunately, he didn’t have a valid ID. Frances advised him to apply for a replacement ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles location downstairs. However, he didn’t return to the Tzu Chi USA station before she left at lunchtime.

The following morning, Frances ran into this man again and realized he was still wearing the same clothes, looking even more disheveled. Taking his apparent needs to heart, she offered him a ride to the Hope Center nearby, where shower and laundry services were available. Doing so, she felt deeply rewarded, having gone above and beyond to help this individual, whom she treated like family and not a stranger, get through a most challenging time.

As for the opportunity to serve the community alongside Tzu Chi volunteers most of whom happen to be of a different cultural heritage than she Frances Mann was, basically, grateful, seeing the common thread between them:

We may not speak the same language, but I can tell that everyone in this group has love for each other.

Frances Mann, Local Tzu Chi Volunteer

Going Above and Beyond

Some of the Tzu Chi volunteers who participated in the wildfire aid distributions at the LAC in Oroville are in their golden years, putting them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Yu-Ying Chen, age 76, was one of the senior volunteers serving on October 3, and did her best to console the care recipients she spoke to through the protective transparent shield between them, despite her rudimentary English language skills.

“I can speak simple English but not the complicated one, [so] I learn from the volunteer beside me, listening to how she interacts with survivors in English,” Yu-Ying explained. She then shared how she introduces the story about Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks and the philosophy of continual giving to care recipients so they can learn about the beauty of the cycle of love.

Yu-Ying continued, saying that “I asked if they are willing to bring back a bamboo bank, and 100% of them said yes!” Her tone then grew somber as she thought of the distress and difficulties wildfire survivors were enduring, explaining that there were no frequent wildfires like now when she first came to the United States 40 years ago.

I feel empathy for them, imagining if we were the survivors, we would suffer as they are.

Yu-Ying Chen, Tzu Chi Volunteer
76-year-old Yu-Ying Chen does not waste a second as she puts her compassion in action, offering attentive care to every care recipient she meets. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

That’s why the pandemic doesn’t stop Yu-Ying from helping others, even if doing so under these circumstances may put her at risk, as she deeply understands why Master Cheng Yen always says, “there’s no more time.” The senior volunteer explains that as long as she wears a mask properly and is vigilant about maintaining other disinfection procedures, she is not afraid of being at higher risk.

“At first, I was really scared of being infected, but now I know how to take precautions. The cautious mind helps us to accept the presence of the coronavirus and learn how to coexist with it. I will just make a wish to the coronavirus [so I won’t be the chosen one!],” Yu-Ying shared before returning to her station to offer assistance to more wildfire survivors.

Senior volunteer Yu-Ying Chen tells wildfire survivors that the cloth masks made by Tzu Chi are eco-friendly and protective. Photo/C.M. Yung
Yu-ying Chen is energized while volunteering at the Oroville LAC distribution site. Photo/C.M. Yung

Disciplined Organization Maintains Safety

There is a big difference in how Tzu Chi volunteers conduct disaster relief distributions in 2020 compared to previous years. Because of the pandemic, there are many protocols regarding social distancing and disinfection to be implemented. Maintaining these procedures with diligence helps keep distribution sites organized and calms wildfire survivors’ anxiety.

And, each volunteer has a role to play in making distributions run smoothly. In Oroville, the team assigned Tzu Chi volunteer Tiffany Liu to greet each care recipient and help with check-in procedures, which she appreciated and enjoyed, saying that “For me, [serving as a greeter] is really exciting because I see that as the opportunity to first create that initial spark and connection with a lot of people who really don’t know what Tzu Chi is or understand what we do as an organization from a Buddhist perspective.”

When we are next to them, we start to connect with their emotions, and their sufferings become our pain, their longings become our hope. This helps me remember that we are all connected.

Tiffany Liu, Tzu Chi Volunteer
Tzu Chi volunteer Tiffany Liu interacts with wildfire survivors with unwavering attention and care. Photo/C.M. Yung
During the pandemic, following procedures carefully is vital at the large-scale distribution sites to help maintain safety and relieve stress. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

Everything Is Possible With Positivity and Inner Strength

North Complex Fire survivor Shawn Eddy came to the distribution site on September 24 with his wife, whom he pushed along as she sat in a wheelchair. “She had AVM (Arteriovenous malformation) in her brain,” Shawn told the Tzu Chi volunteers who received them. His wife had a hemorrhagic stroke last year that left her completely paralyzed and unable to speak.

Despite the hardship, Shawn stayed strong for his beloved. He took care of her until she got better. “I just re-did the whole house with ramps. This is all we had.” They had just finished all the payments, and his wife had finally majorly recovered and could talk again. Unfortunately, the wildfire stopped them from getting back on track.

Despite the hardship, Shawn stayed strong for his beloved. He took care of her until she got better. “I just re-did the whole house with ramps. This is all we had.” They had just finished all the payments, and his wife had finally majorly recovered and could talk again. Unfortunately, the wildfire stopped them from getting back on track.
A Tzu Chi volunteer hands a cash card from Tzu Chi to Shawn Eddy’s diasbled wife. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

“We are just trying to survive,” Shawn said pensively. When asked about their rebuilding plans, he replied with determination and toughness, “We will do it again.” As the Eddys left, Shawn’s wife was grinning from ear to ear and tightly holding the eco-blankets, cloth masks, Jing Si Instant Rice, and cash card the couple had just received. Once again, Tzu Chi USA’s aid helped fortify another family’s faith in the future. 

Shawn Eddy and his wife leave the distribution site with smiles and positive energy. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

We trust you enjoyed these snapshots from behind the scenes at Tzu Chi USA’s recent wildfire relief distributions, and we sincerely invite you to be part of our missions of love and care following disasters that shatter the peace and wellbeing of families nationwide. Together, we can be their hope.

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