Celebrating 20 years of Medical Outreach by Tzu Chi Fresno

By Christina Chang | Translated by Diana Chang | Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Tzu Chi Fresno medical team’s outreach in 2021 marks over 20 years of service, providing over a thousand events by Tzu Chi’s mobile clinics traveling to reach those in need of care. Photo/Olivia Chung

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You must be God sent!” Ninety-year-old Matilde exclaimed most gratefully to a Tzu Chi volunteer as she glanced over at her 85-year-old husband, Isaac, getting his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while seated comfortably under the shade of a tree. The elderly couple’s worries finally dissolved on this summer day in Del Rey, California, where the warmth was emanating not only from bright sunshine but also the caring love they were receiving from Tzu Chi Fresno’s medical outreach team.

Tzu Chi Fresno’s mobile clinic vans travel along California State Route 99 during all seasons, stopping in rural areas to provide medical, dental, and vision care services. Photo/Olivia Chung

The Tzu Chi Fresno medical team began providing community outreach in 2001, so 2021 marks its 20th Anniversary of care. Volunteers provided over a thousand medical care events during the span of those two decades. The outreach began with the first Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic van in service, outfitted for general medical care, then two dental and one vision care vans joined the fleet.

Over the years, one could regularly see the four mobile clinic vans traveling along California State Route 99 or parked in the countryside and farmland to provide free medical services for those in need. And, as Tzu Chi volunteers in their blue and white uniforms emerged from the vehicles, farmworkers would pause their activities in the fields to wave and say hello, yelling out cheerily, “Hi, my friend! You’re back!”

Energy Beams from Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Service Center

In the small Tzu Chi office in Fresno, you’ll see great efforts.

Steven Voon
Executive Vice President
Tzu Chi Medical Foundation

Tzu Chi volunteer Steven Voon is currently the Executive Vice President of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation and the Director of Tzu Chi’s mobile clinics in the United States. He has lived in Fresno for over 20 years yet perhaps what he most likes to remember is the day in 2002 when he took the initiative to call Tzu Chi USA’s office in Fresno and ask about volunteering in upcoming activities.

The volunteer who had answered the phone gladly announced, “Great, we’ll be holding a medical outreach tomorrow,” and Steven was welcome to lend a helping hand. The event was the second medical outreach held by Tzu Chi Fresno, but it was a momentous first for Steven, marking the start of his journey volunteering with Tzu Chi.

Steven took on the responsibility for directing the flow of patients at the registration station, which demanded being on his feet for several hours straight. However, what he recalls more vividly than the physical aspect of his premiere volunteering experience, was how he was feeling, “I don’t feel tired; I’m happy to have the opportunity to serve the community.” And that sentiment persists until this day.

Steven Voon’s first volunteer experience dates back to 2002, when he served during Tzu Chi Fresno’s second medical outreach event. Photo/Steven Voon

It wasn’t long before Steven Voon emerged as Tzu Chi Fresno’s principal volunteer dedicated to medical outreach activities. In the first two years, Tzu Chi volunteers traveled to Fresno from Southern and Northern California to assist in medical outreach events. From the third year onwards, the Fresno medical team began holding medical outreach events independently. Still, this hardly impeded solidarity nationwide in providing medical services, as 2018 would show.

That year, Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) held its annual conference in Fresno, gathering volunteers from 19 chapters in the United States and Honduras. During the event, Steven shared about Tzu Chi Fresno’s medical outreach mission and what has supported the team’s efforts. For one, they could pool strength and energy from the growth in the number of certified volunteers, reaching 18 by 2021.

Additionally, collaboration with many organizations in the community amplified the scope and the reach of their care and services.

The Tzu Chi Fresno medical outreach team truly believes that together with partners, they share the responsibility for guarding the community’s health. Their forging a partnership with Healthy Fresno County (a joint project of the Fresno Community Health Improvement Partnership strength and energy from the growth in the number of certified volunteers, reaching 18 by 2021. Additionally, collaboration with many organizations in the community amplified the scope and the reach of their care and services.

The Tzu Chi Fresno medical outreach team truly believes that together with partners, they share the responsibility for guarding the community’s health. Their forging a partnership with Healthy Fresno County (a joint project of the Fresno Community Health Improvement Partnership and the Fresno County Department of Public Health) was a milestone towards this purpose becoming a concrete reality.

Tzu Chi is a partner of Healthy Fresno County, providing the platform, equipment, and volunteers for medical outreach events like this one in 2013. Photo/Olivia Chung

Healthy Fresno County aims at “building a culture of health in Fresno County where there are fair opportunities for everyone to achieve optimal health and well-being.” Tzu Chi Fresno provides a platform, equipment, and volunteer workforce towards this community mission and plans to serve everyone in Central California who needs medical attention.

To summarize the main reason Tzu Chi Fresno’s medical team successfully reached 20 years of service, Steven said that “Our perseverance was acknowledged in the community.” The Fresno medical outreach team is also ready to support other Tzu Chi teams across the nation. For instance, volunteers often travel to Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas Service Center to help train its medical volunteers.

Learning about the success of Fresno’s medical outreach activities moved the 2018 TIMA conference attendees deeply. In response, they vowed to assist Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region – to which Tzu Chi Fresno belongs – in obtaining two new vision mobile vans to strengthen their free vision services in the community.

Fresno residents form a long line outside a medical outreach venue in 2013 to register for the free medical services they need. Photo/Steven Voon
Steven Voon’s smile brightens every medical outreach event helping guard the health of the Fresno community, such as this one in 2013. Photo/Steven Voon

The two decades of service in the Fresno region have made Tzu Chi volunteers a known and welcome presence in the community. To illustrate, when not long ago, Steven Voon went to Saint Agnes Medical Center in his Tzu Chi uniform to pick up doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for an outreach event, a maintenance technician called out, “Tzu Chi, I know you. I got help from you at a medical outreach event 15 years ago.”

Steven replied warmly with a beaming smile, knowing that the Fresno medical team’s persistence in guarding the community’s health is rooted in gratitude for the opportunity to give back. Since all the volunteers keep this view at heart, their activities will continue blossoming, thereby benefiting many more in the years ahead. 

Tzu Chi volunteer Steven Voon conveys all the necessary information to the volunteers serving at a medical outreach event in 2013. Photo/Steven Voon
Tzu Chi Fresno’s 1,000th medical outreach event takes place in the City of Madera on May 20, 2021, helping 25 kids get an eye exam and prescription glasses if need be. Photo/Olivia Chung

Love and Care Through One Thousand Medical Outreach Events

In early 2021 as the government gradually reopened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olivia Chung, the manager of Tzu Chi Fresno’s mobile clinics, began holding three to five medical outreaches per week. On May 20, 2021, eight volunteers from the medical team set off from the Fresno Service Center early in the morning.

When they arrived in the City of Madera, an hour’s drive away, they began to provide free vision exams and glasses for 25 children in the area. During Tzu Chi Fresno’s 20th anniversary year, this event marked the team’s 1,000th medical outreach event.

Despite the scorching heat or the dark, Tzu Chi volunteer Olivia Chung focuses on helping more people in need at each medical outreach event. Photo/Olivia Chung
After arriving in the U.S. from Malaysia in 2003, Olivia Chung joins the Fresno medical team. Photo/Steven Voon

After Tzu Chi Fresno had completed a thousand medical outreach events, Olivia only thought about how they could do more in the future: “The number of medical outreach events has already reached four figures. Then reaching two thousand should be fast too.” And, looking at the Fresno mobile clinics’ calendar, fully booked with events and plans, this vision isn’t a dream but a goal that has a good chance of being accomplished.

From 2001 to 2016, the Tzu Chi Fresno medical team completed 507 medical outreach events. Within five years starting from 2017, close to 500 more followed, although, among those, the team had to postpone several for nearly a year due to the pandemic. Currently, the team is resuming outreach events one by one, and the mobile clinics’ vans will once again dot the path along California’s State Route 99.

In March, a collaboration with Fresno County sent Tzu Chi’s medical team to a rural area where agricultural workers needed COVID-19 vaccination, reopening the guarding health plan for the community. The services of the team are vital, indeed.

Tzu Chi Fresno’s 1,000 medical outreach events in 20 years have served low-income families without health insurance in metropolitan areas. They have also met the needs of migrant agricultural workers toiling in the fields, many undocumented and struggling to make ends meet, with medical care a luxury they can’t obtain without such outreach initiatives.

Moreover, the medical outreach extended further in 2021, when Every Woman Counts (EWC), which provides free breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services to California’s underserved populations, contacted Fresno’s medical team. Beginning on March 19, with the EWC providing the equipment for check-ups and Tzu Chi offering support through volunteers in rural areas, the Tzu Chi Fresno medical team started another chapter of guarding health in the community with these collaborative preventive measures.

Another area of targeted service that the medical team has firmly on the horizon is care for senior citizens. Tzu Chi Fresno recently used an external grant of $70,000 to purchase new equipment for eye exams, which can detect issues caused by chronic diseases such as diabetes. After such exams, the team can determine if they should refer patients to medical institutions for further treatment.

At present, the insurance held by many seniors only covers general eye exams. The new equipment can provide advanced exams for elderly members of the community. These services are free of charge, and after surveys and discussions, the initial availability will begin in August, with a series of added programs to follow.

Olivia Chung provides eye exam services to seniors in the community at a medical outreach event on December 3, 2019. Photo/Steven Voon

From cities to small towns and villages, from underserved families and children to women’s health and attention to seniors, the reach of Tzu Chi USA’s medical mission in Fresno is growing thanks to its volunteers’ infinite perseverance, accomplished one milestone after another for the benefit of many.

From One Outreach to a Thousand Means the World to Many Tzu Chi Fresno Volunteers

It’s not only Steven Voon and Olivia Chung’s volunteer experiences in Fresno that extend back many years.

Susette Ishizuka joined Tzu Chi as early as 1996. At the time, Tzu Chi volunteers Ling Cho and Jeanine Morgan invited her to assist in caring for individual charity cases in the community. She participated in Fresno’s first medical outreach in 2001, organized by Tzu Chi volunteer Grace Yang, and served during the 1,000th medical outreach event in 2021, hoping that underserved children from migrant families could correct their vision if need be with glasses on the spot.

Despite inclement weather, Tzu Chi Fresno medical team’s 1,000th outreach proceeds with free eye exams for children in a rural area. After frame selection, the children who need them get prescription glasses within an hour. Photo/Olivia Chung
Hsiuhua Chang selects suitable frames for children needing glasses at Tzu Chi Fresno’s 1,000th medical outreach event. Photo/Olivia Chung

Another Tzu Chi Fresno volunteer, Hsiuhua Chang, is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the first, the 1,000th, and many, many more medical outreach activities. She’s grateful for all the volunteer experiences over the years as she credits them for bringing a sense of accomplishment to her life: “I hope that our efforts will have an impact on changing the world.” Currently, Hsiuhua also serves as the point of contact for Tzu Chi Fresno’s charity cases. During their medical outreach events, if the medical team deems that a family needs further assistance, they’ll refer them to Tzu Chi’s charity case manager to establish an individual care case which means more support can follow.

It’s been a momentous five years for all the volunteers involved in Tzu Chi Fresno’s medical outreach mission. They’re ready to help more and more people get the medical care they need going forward, with what lies ahead on the horizon looking mighty bright when taking into account how far they’ve already come since 2001.

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