Wildfires ravage many communities on the West Coast in 2020, leaving some residents homeless. Photo/C.M. Yung
Support for Specific Communities
Notwithstanding recurring lockdowns, maintaining specific community care was equally a concern of Tzu Chi volunteers in different regions. On the West Coast, Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region had begun offering aid to the residents of a motorhome community in Mountain View, a city in California’s Santa Clara County in Silicon Valley.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a section of a street along the railway line cutting through the town was designated by the City as a safe place to park motorhomes. Gradually, this makeshift community of 30 vehicles arose.
Most of the residents came from Latin America, leaving home to pursue the American Dream. Many are undocumented, and all can be considered low-income families. While some depend on temporary jobs, the rest have no employment whatsoever, making their survival continually stressful.
Around Thanksgiving, Tzu Chi volunteers visited the community three times to assess the situation and begin providing essential supplies. They were planning to distribute more close to Christmas when news of an impending lockdown broke. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising in California, five counties in the Bay Area announced on December 4 that they would implement a month-long stay-at-home order from the night of December 6 until January 4.
Tzu Chi volunteer Emily Polivka immediately sprang into action mobilizing a team to prepare care packages for distribution, explaining:
The team was undaunted by the fact that they only had hours to get everything ready and, within a day, had prepared 30 care packages, which they delivered on December 5. Among the goods provided were eco-blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, masks, shampoo, body wash, soap, hand sanitizer, socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Tzu Chi’s Jing Si Instant Rice, and noodles.
One of the residents, Jauquin, had already been assisting Tzu Chi volunteers with Spanish translation during previous visits to the community and continued this time as well, telling them, “I’m really grateful for you bringing clothes for us to stay warm during such difficult times.” Thanks to his help, Tzu Chi volunteers could communicate with the Hispanic residents and learn more about their situation.
Victor, 88 years old, has been living alone in his motorhome for eight years, and first, expressed his gratitude to Jauquin, who is a good neighbor and helps take care of him, then exclaimed, “And now, I have you delivering these living essentials to help me, I really appreciate it.” Jauquin had tears in his eyes as he translated for Victor.
As they went from one motorhome to another, the volunteers heard the care recipient families’ stories. Despite her limited job opportunities due to the language barrier, Bianca, from El Salvador, managed to help bring her daughter and grandchildren to the U.S. to join her. The family had just reunited the day before, and everyone was now living in the motorhome. The timing of the supplies from Tzu Chi was a godsend:
Obtaining daily necessities that most people have and taken for granted is a daily worry here, yet this night, as the city was locking down, these families found some relief. Moreover, as they left, the volunteers already began planning for more distributions and the establishment of individual care cases for long-term aid.
Forging and maintaining long-term relationships within the communities they serve is always in Tzu Chi volunteers’ hearts. In Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region, volunteers in Houston have been visiting Wellsprings Village Inc. since 2014 and continued to do so during the pandemic’s first winter.
The nonprofit charitable organization offers long-term transitional housing and supportive services for homeless and abused women, and in the beginning, Tzu Chi volunteers occasionally visited to offer emotional support. With approval from the center’s management, the visits evolved to a monthly program, through which volunteers also provide cleaning supplies or personal hygiene products.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers have continued to bring cleaning supplies along with masks, sanitizers, and more necessities for both the residents and staff. And near the end of 2020, to spread some Christmas cheer, the volunteers decided to provide care packages as gifts. On December 16, they brought the presents to the center, where they discovered Wellspring Village had recognized Tzu Chi’s aid through its annual Humanitarian Award.
Improving Online Learning for Students
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in many ways, and especially for students, for whom in-person class attendance has been repeatedly interrupted due to school closures. While remote learning from home has worked for the most part, for some families, the lack of a home computer has become an unprecedented obstacle in their children’s ability to continue their education.
Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region volunteers in Silicon Valley decided to donate laptops to help migrant farmworker and undocumented low-income families who can’t afford such equipment for their children overcome this new challenge. In October, with a referral from the County of Santa Clara Social Services Agency, accompanied by its social workers, Tzu Chi volunteers began this far-seeing care mission.
Israel Rivera Alvarado, social worker and California Migrant Education Program (MEP) Advocate at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, was part of the team and knew how the computers could make a difference in these families’ lives. Apart from enabling students to attend online classes, they would also allow these families to find out about and apply for other resources that may be available to them.
Each student who received a laptop was delighted, most probably never expecting such a gift, and from a group of strangers. Diego, who lives with his parents in a rented cabin near a farm in a small town near Santa Cruz, just started Grade 7 after the summer break. When he received a laptop computer from Tzu Chi, he was overwhelmed with joy.
Diego’s parents are from a village in Mexico and have been working hard harvesting crops in the U.S. for 16 years to survive. While they never had the opportunity to learn English, Diego, born and raised in the United States, speaks it fluently. This and the fact that he can get an education make him the hope of the family.
Luis was another student who received a computer. While age 14, he’s only in Grade 7 instead of Grade 9, as is the norm. He and his father, Jorge, came to the U.S. from Guatemala two years ago. They live on a strawberry farm in a horse barn converted to living quarters for six single male workers. Luis is the only kid, sharing accommodations consisting of basic beds between partitions subdividing the space into separate units.
Life is hard for the father and son. In 2020, due to the pandemic and wildfires nearby, Jorge’s working hours diminished significantly, and he’s trying to find another job to make ends meet. Luis is the only son in the U.S. with his father; his five siblings are with their mother back in Guatemala, who also takes care of the couple’s elderly parents.
Jorge struggles to survive in the U.S. and provide for his extended family back home, his worries about them a constant source of suffering. As was the case with Diego, his oldest son Luis, too, will become this family’s hope, with the associated responsibilities.
Christopher Yang, an 18-year-old Tzu Chi volunteer who grew up in Northern California surrounded by all the conveniences and benefits of technology, was on the team of volunteers giving out the computers. Being just a few years older than the students, the experience of meeting the children of underprivileged migrant workers on this mission moved Christopher deeply.
After Christopher helped Ludys set up his new computer, the boy rushed to use Google Translate from Spanish to English so the two could converse. While the boy is 14 years old, he’s only in Grade 6. Due to his father’s undocumented immigrant status, the jobs he finds are unstable, and as a result, the family is often on the move. Although they have been in the U.S. for some time, changing schools frequently, Ludys doesn’t speak English fluently and can’t keep up with students his age.
Nonetheless, Ludys is the luckiest one in the family of seven, as he’s the only one who has had the opportunity to go to school at all. As he received the laptop computer, his eyes sparkled with joy, as everyone in the family knows the access to the world of knowledge and opportunity this gift will bring.
In San Francisco, Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region volunteers hoped to facilitate remote learning for underprivileged students as well. Beyond owning a computer, headsets are indispensable for online learning and can enhance students’ ability to concentrate, especially in overcrowded homes. Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s San Francisco Branch were motivated to answer this need.
Tzu Chi USA has been providing food distributions in Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, the largest primary school in San Francisco’s Chinatown, for the past 12 years. All the students here are from recent immigrant and low-income families, and a quarter of them reside in single room occupancy (SRO) housing, often sharing a space of 80 to 140 square feet with the entire family. These are not ideal conditions for focused study.
Tzu Chi volunteers searched online and ordered the most appropriate headsets for children that block external noise and are comfortable to wear. They then tested the quality of each one individually to ensure everything works as it should once they arrived. Finally, on October 13, a team of volunteers distributed the headsets at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School. At the same time, they provided whiteboards, which teachers at the school indicated were also important.
It was an opportunity for Tzu Chi volunteers and many parents to reconnect after months without any contact due to recurring stay-at-home directives. The volunteers also gave out Tzu Chi’s noodles and Jing Si Instant Rice, favorite foods in many families.
Jinghua Chen, a mother of two who has been receiving Tzu Chi USA’s aid for some time, declared, “I’m so grateful that Tzu Chi has been supporting me and my two kids both financially and with essential supplies. We received a cash card twice. The kids really like to eat Jing Si Rice and noodles. And this time, I’m receiving the headsets, whiteboards, masks, and Jing Si Rice. Thank you so much!”
Gloria Choy, Principal of Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, was at the distribution event as well and equally expressed her gratitude:
The day after the distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers visited the homes of some students living in SRO housing to see how they were faring with the new headsets. Watching the children at their computers, attentive and undistracted, was all the reward they needed for another mission hitting the mark.
Indeed, there were many such moments of heartfelt joy for Tzu Chi volunteers over the last few months, as they accomplished an array of aid missions across America, in advance of and during the winter of 2020. And now, their plans for the Spring and Summer of 2021 are already unfolding and underway.