An Array of Aid Across America (Part 1)

By Ida Eva Zielinska

Wildfires ravage many communities on the West Coast in 2020, leaving some residents homeless. Photo/C.M. Yung


At the start of 2021, people worldwide face an unprecedented conglomeration of challenges that threaten or have impacted their lives, their hopes for emerging from the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic intense. Indeed, the late fall and winter of 2020, which we have just traversed, were unlike any other in recent history.

While the need for charity aid and other support across the United States was and continues to be urgent, so are the difficulties, and even dangers, while providing it. Notwithstanding the outbreak of COVID-19, Tzu Chi USA volunteers, some at greater risk of infection and complications due to age, have been doing their part to bring relief to those in need on several fronts.

First off, relief efforts to support the survivors of natural disasters are ongoing, some of these families having been rendered homeless, and this, amid the raging global health crisis. It’s a shock that’s hard to absorb, as is the distress of not knowing what to do next.

That was supposed to be our forever home.

Aid for Recovering Disaster Survivors

On the West Coast, the 2020 wildfire season left many struggling along the long road to full recovery, and Tzu Chi’s distributions of cash cards and other supplies have been a source of vital aid. 

Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region volunteers held six days of disaster relief distribution at the Local Assistance Center (LAC) in Oroville, California, in October, serving North Complex Fire survivors. By the end, their efforts had benefited 314 households. 

For Michelle Bankston, who had lost her dream home in Berry Creek to the flames – one she only purchased months earlier, expecting to live in it for the rest of her life – the aid was a beacon of hope. It was especially critical since her family had recently grown, as just three days before this tragedy struck, Michelle had legally adopted three girls.

When the fire broke out, causing power failures, Michelle moved to a hotel where the children could get internet access for remote learning while their schools were closed. That temporary departure quickly became permanent. “We found out that the fire was taking over Berry Creek… we left everything up there. They didn’t let us back home to grab anything,” she explained. Within hours, everything they owned was gone.

Michelle Bankston, who lost her home to the North Complex Fire, shares her story while receiving Tzu Chi’s aid. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

At first, I was kind of lost. My mind was gone. I just couldn’t think of what to do, what to put my foot next to. But then I snapped out of it; I have kids I have to deal with – so, one foot in front of the other. Just keep going.

Michelle would use the cash card from Tzu Chi to buy food and clothing for her children, as she starts over from scratch. Along with the emergency funds, she, and each care recipient, also received a letter from Dharma Master Cheng Yen, expressing her sorrow for their trauma and loss and sending her love and encouragement. Wildfire survivor Sabrina Hopkins was moved to tears reading it, then shared her deep gratitude at that moment: 

Wildfire survivor Sabrina Hopkins talks to a volunteer as she receives Tzu Chi's disaster aid. Photo/C.M. Yung

I’m just happy everybody is alive. [And] I’m so thankful you guys are here to help everybody. I don’t know what we would do without people like you guys.

The wildfire disaster relief mission reached Oregon as well, with Tzu Chi volunteers from three states mobilizing to bring aid to families in Medford, Jackson County, many of whom found themselves left with nothing overnight. Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Portland Service Center, Northwest Region, and Seattle Branch held a distribution at the LAC in Medford on October 31, aid of immediate help to 126 households.

Some care recipients gave harrowing accounts of their recent experience coming face-to-face with the terrifying and destructive flames:

At that time, there was smoke everywhere, and there were fires everywhere coming from both sides of the highway through the forest. When I got home, my home was already burned to the ground.

Hearing the words of encouragement in Master Cheng Yen’s letter to wildfire survivors, two care recipients hug with emotion, the shock of their situation still fresh. Photo/C.M. Yung

And yet, the love and care they felt as they talked to volunteers at the distribution was a balm to the sting of such misfortune, bringing some comfort. 

We’re all a family living under the same sky! I’m grateful for the love from around the world!

Across the country, Hurricane Laura had caused extensive damages in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana, leaving some underprivileged  families in dire need of aid in the aftermath. Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region volunteers from Houston organized a large-scale cash card distribution, aiming to help residents in the underserved communities of Orange County and Deweyville, Texas, and Dequincy, Louisiana.

For safety reasons during the pandemic, the October event, held outside Deweyville High School, utilized a drive-through distribution method to limit personal contact. However, this didn’t prevent Tzu Chi volunteers and care recipients from connecting heart to heart.

For some, receiving financial aid was a first, and they felt immensely grateful for the freedom and ability it provided to purchase what they needed the most. When hearing about Tzu Chi’s origins and the inspirational history behind its bamboo banks, they were also eager to give back.

As is the custom, in addition to cash cards, food, or other supplies, volunteers also gave out Tzu Chi’s signature eco-blankets during these disaster relief distributions, sharing the environmental protection message they embody.


The eco-blankets Tzu Chi gives out when providing disaster and charity aid in the U.S. and globally are produced in Taiwan by DA.AI Technology Company Limited.  After obtaining Master Cheng Yen’s approval, five entrepreneurs started the company in 2008. 

They aimed to integrate environmental protection and materials recycling in the development and manufacture of new products, the proceeds of whose sales would support Tzu Chi’s charity missions worldwide. The company’s motto expresses DA.AI’s vision succinctly:

Turn trash into gold, gold into love, love into a purifying stream, and surround the globe with it.

Today, DAAI Technology develops eco-friendly products crafted from discarded polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic water bottles. The company collects and sorts raw PET materials, transforms them into its proprietary DA.AI Technology  yarn, then weaves the resulting high-quality textiles into various products, all without increasing the total PET volume. 

In addition to Tzu Chi’s signature blankets, DA.AI manufactures scarves, various clothing, backpacks, bedding, and other everyday textile products. To complete the cycle of love and care for Mother Earth and its inhabitants, all the proceeds from the sale of DA.AI products directly benefit Tzu Chi’s humanitarian missions. 

Likewise, Tzu Chi volunteers use DA.AI’s durable apparel and practical products as they travel and serve in disaster areas, keeping them safe and sound while consciously expressing their dedication to environmental protection through this choice. 

Each eco-friendly blanket has the Tzu Chi logo on it, a reminder of the foundation’s love and care for the recipient. Photo/Dong-Yun Jien

Relief to Alleviate Food Insecurity

While disasters caused upheaval in some people’s lives, the pandemic has touched the lives of us all, leading to economic hardships for many families and escalating their need for food aid. Tzu Chi USA’s efforts on that front have continued without interruption as well.

In Texas, Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region office in Houston gained approval to become a permanent partner of the Houston Food Bank in 2020, which has enabled regular food distributions, beginning in October. The plan is to hold two distributions per month, serving low-income and undocumented families in the community. 

The path to this partnership began when Tzu Chi volunteers took to heart that with the pandemic’s spread and hurricanes continually affecting Houston’s economy, many residents are struggling to make ends meet. They contacted Houston Food Bank proposing their offices as a distribution site. 

After three distributions as temporary partners over the summer, the organization officially approved Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region office as their permanent site for distribution events. 

The first three distributions had gone well. The food bank felt our location is good and our volunteers are respectful to the families, so in October, we [were] approved to become a permanent partner of the food bank.

To illustrate the grave need for such support, families began lining up three hours before the October event’s scheduled start. 

People begin lining up hours before the start of food distribution, elderly residents among them. Photo/Jong Wu

Seeing the queue, which included elderly residents, the volunteers hastened to unload the food bank’s truck delivering over 12,000 lbs of fresh produce and staples. They subdivided the items and packed individual boxes swiftly to start the distribution sooner.

Teenaged community volunteers unload fresh vegetables from Houston Food Bank’s truck. Photo/Jean Hsu

A total of 47 volunteers participated in this event, benefiting 234 households. Roger Lin, who coordinates the food distributions, hopes that such activities will help attract more community volunteers, and they already have.

Starting from October, members of the Formosa Association of Student Cultural Ambassadors (FASCA) – which aims to help teenagers learn Chinese culture, leadership skills, and teamwork through community services and cultural experiences – volunteer at the distributions with their parents. It’s the first time many students will meet families struggling to put food on the table; the first-hand encounter leaves a lasting impression.  

Tzu Chi volunteers also invited their friends to participate in the event. Greg Walker, who accepted the invitation to volunteer, cherished the opportunity to serve the community.

[It's] the most important thing in this day and age with the coronavirus that basically shut down the world and put a lot of people out of work. I think this is one of the most worthy things to volunteer your time for.

On the West Coast, food distribution through Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region’s Happy Campus program in East Palo Alto, California, a community populated with new immigrants and low-income families, is also ongoing.

The Happy Campus program strives to address low-income and underserved communities’ needs holistically. Among its activities, it works with young school children, assists students’ families, provides college scholarships, offers free medical outreach, distributes food alongside local food banks, and donates winter clothing. 

Sadly, the situation for many families in East Palo Alto has worsened due to the pandemic, with numerous residents left unemployed or with significantly reduced income. Consequently, food assistance requests increased by 200% to 300%, depending on the week. In response, volunteers ramped up the food distribution volume to provide nourishment to over 600 families per week, each Saturday morning.

With people mostly confined to their homes, not only do these events provide food to families in need but also open a precious window for volunteers to reconnect with residents, offering moral support through the tough times we’re all experiencing.

Tzu Chi and local community volunteers work as a team, loading food directly into the trunks of care recipients’ cars. Photo/Jong Wu

Tzu Chi USA’s Greater Washington D.C. Region volunteers have also been doing their part to help food-insecure families. For staff and volunteers at Tzu Chi Academy Washington D.C., in Bethesda, Maryland, their annual Thanksgiving food drive and distribution is a cherished tradition that continued in 2020, although somewhat differently.

To protect everyone’s safety, food donation, collection, and packaging, which took place in advance of the distribution, proceeded outdoors, in the parking lot of Walt Whitman High School, a few blocks from Tzu Chi Academy. Tzu Chi volunteers, the families of Tzu Chi Academy students, staff, and school volunteers all took part in this venture of love. 

Once they categorized the donated food supplies, including staples such as rice, beans, cereal, cooking oil, and so on, the families packed shopping bags with an assortment of items, preparing numerous grocery bags, each weighing over 20 pounds. Finally, on November 19, a team of volunteers set out for JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres in Silver Spring, where families in need were waiting for them that afternoon.

Frank Chen, the Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Greater Washington D.C. Region, brought along even more items to share with the families, including gift cards and packages of Tzu Chi’s noodles and Jing Si Rice. Several local community volunteers also came to assist during the distribution and helped with Spanish translation.

By the end of the afternoon, the volunteers had distributed all the bags of food with love and care, bringing relief and cheer to each family during this year’s challenging holiday season. It was heartwarming to see these families with a gleam of gratitude and hope in their eyes as they joyfully exclaimed, “Gracias!” 

T.J. Lau, the nine-year-old son of one of the volunteers helping out at the food drive, summed up the experience beautifully:

The care recipients are eager to take the food home to their families, bringing cheer on what might have been a more somber Thanksgiving. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Greater Washington D.C. Region Volunteers

I was most happy when I saw how happy these families were!

Winter Clothing to Warm Those in Need

In the Northeast, Tzu Chi volunteers also intended to bring aid to underprivileged families around Thanksgiving. And in New York, despite COVID-19, they followed through with their traditional winter clothes distribution, a charity event with a 25-year history. What has made the event even more blessed is that it has become a joint interfaith charity effort in New York City, of Buddhist Tzu Chi and the Christian Episcopal Church.

Tzu Chi New York has collaborated with All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Manhattan on Thanksgiving for two years, offering winter wear for those in need alongside the church’s annual Thanksgiving food distribution. As it happens, the church is located directly across the street from the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief, and the two have evolved from good neighbors to great partners through their collaborative charity work.

You bring a lot of volunteers. It has helped us a lot, and we feel good about our mutual work together.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church collaborates with Tzu Chi in holding a joint food and winter clothing distribution on Thanksgiving Day. Photo/Peter Lin

Respecting public safety protocols, All Saints’ Episcopal Church hosted its annual Thanksgiving food distribution outside in 2020. More people than expected came since the pandemic’s impact is widespread, causing many hardships. Inside the Tzu Chi Center’s kitchen, volunteers had prepared colorful vegetarian dishes for bento boxes that would join the church’s offerings of hot food for the homeless and those in need. 

Meanwhile, outside the church across the street, another group of volunteers had hung up the donated winter jackets and coats after sorting them according to gender, size, and type, making it easy for people to select the right one, just like in a store. Behind the scenes, the clothing’s path from donation to the distribution site had been a laborious one made possible thanks to many volunteers’ love and dedication. 

Initially, numerous bags of winter coats were donated by New York residents, reaching more than a hundred collected within the month before Thanksgiving. Taking advantage of the weekend before the holiday, Tzu Chi volunteers hurried to sort all the pre-owned clothing into different categories, carefully checking each piece to ensure it was in the best condition possible before sending them all for washing.

Volunteers examine and sort the donated clothes into categories prior to sending them for washing. Photo/Daphne Liu

Lucy Lu, the owner of a laundromat, who also happens to be a Tzu Chi volunteer, was in charge of the next phase in the process. Since the laundry shop is open seven days a week, she doesn’t have much time on her hands. Still, she utilizes her lunch breaks and the laundromat’s off-hours to volunteer with Tzu Chi. 

Whenever Tzu Chi has some things that need to be washed, I can take care of it. I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I will wash and divide [the clothes] by size (large, medium, and small) so they won’t get messed up while being distributed.

Lucy Lu started her laundry shop in 2012. Although she’s always busy at work, she’ll make time for Tzu Chi activities, in this case, washing donated clothes for distribution. Photo/Daphne Liu

Finally, all the winter wear was ready for the distribution event on November 28. While people waited their turn to select clothes, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed homemade cakes and cookies they had baked. At a designated time, church staff and volunteers also began giving out their take-out hot meals and Tzu Chi’s vegetarian bento boxes. Everyone was glad to get a bite to eat but also couldn’t wait to choose their best fitting winter clothes. 

A senior care recipient tries on clothes with the help of a volunteer. Photo/Peter Lin

Some care recipients shared their hardships with the volunteers while selecting clothes. Herman, who lost his job then unemployment benefits since the pandemic began, comes to the church for a hot meal every Saturday. Pointing at the broken zipper of his jacket, the only cold-weather clothing he owned, it was clear that the winter wear from Tzu Chi on Thanksgiving was a precious gift that relieved an urgent need.

Currently, I’m getting a few food stamps and a tiny bit of cash assistance till I find full-time work. But I’m glad there are places like this where they can help people and families.

A taxi driver passing by stopped twice to pick some winter clothes plus get a free meal, exclaiming, “Thank you very much for helping people like me. May God bless you, your children, and your family.”

A taxi driver in need puts coins in a bamboo bank as he thanks the volunteers for the winter clothes and free meal, hoping to give back. Photo/Peter Lin

Volunteers assisted each care recipient as they tried on jackets or coats, sharing, “This coat is a blessing from a generous donor… they hope it will keep you warm…” They also explained how to wash the items and highlighted any unique features, just like store clerks. 

Finally, as the care recipients decided on their favorite piece of clothing, some stating, “This is perfect for me, I like it so much,” the volunteers could feel a sense of peace and accomplishment. Having helped provide warmth during the cold season, they were also protecting people’s health during this dangerous pandemic winter. 


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