Student are the Future

Andrea Barrera (second right) joins Tzu Chi volunteers at a 2019 Tzu Chi medical outreach event. Photo/Mark Tsai

Future By Sophie X. Song | Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto


Tzu Chi USA’s Washington D.C. Region and the YMCA’s Youth and Family Services have nurtured a lasting partnership for many years, aiming to create opportunities for support, success, and empowerment. And in fact, it’s been so long that Andrea Barrera, the Community School Coordinator from the YMCA’s Youth & Family Services, can’t be sure of the exact date the partnership first began.

I’ve been working at the YMCA since September of 2004, and we’ve been working with Tzu Chi since then. Technically, we met a year or two before that, so it’s been almost 20 years.

When thinking of the YMCA, many will recall spacious swimming pools and sports facilities. Tzu Chi USA’s collaboration with the YMCA, however, focuses on providing crucial social services within the community.

The Initial Collaboration

In the beginning, Tzu Chi’s partnership with the YMCA concentrated its attention upon providing assistance for low-income families and students at JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres in the D.C. area. Key support activities included a monthly grocery distribution and an annual walk-in health service event that provided free medical consultations and flu shots to families without health insurance. Tzu Chi also funded an after-school program, and recruited teachers and committed staff to provide tutoring for students to help them succeed.

“Many of the students come from migrant or undocumented families, and their parents don’t speak English,” said Andrea. “Even if they wanted to tutor their children, they wouldn’t be able to do so.” Knowing that many migrant students may face multiple barriers to academic achievement, and parents wish for their children to have more opportunities than they may have had, Tzu Chi’s programs offer understanding, attention and effective enrichment.

Tzu Chi has been supporting these programs in the community for nearly two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, heightened many existing challenges for people all across the nation. Amid job and income loss, low-income families were particularly hard-hit. Therefore, Tzu Chi implemented additional programs to meet the needs of families, including financial assistance for those whose income was affected by the pandemic. When volunteers learned of two families who lost their source of income during this period, for example, Tzu Chi provided monthly financial assistance until they could gain employment.

“I remember one child who was diagnosed with cancer. The mother had to work multiple jobs to pay for her child’s treatment, but then she had to give up caring for her child by herself. Or she had to give up her job to be with her son and completely lose her financial resources,” Andrea described another Tzu Chi individual care case. “Fortunately, Tzu Chi decided to provide financial assistance to the family so that the mother could stop working and focus on caring for her child.” Additionally, Tzu Chi distributed food to the family every month. These two programs made it possible for the family to get through this extraordinarily difficult time together.

According to Andrea, the young man is still undergoing treatment, but his health has since improved.

Andrea Barrera (second left) joins Tzu Chi volunteers for a food distribution at JoAnn Leleck Elementary School in 2020. Photo/Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C. Region

A Backpack Full of Love

The yearly provision of school supplies is an important part of Tzu Chi’s mission to uplift low-income students as well. Before the start of each new school year, Tzu Chi distributes backpacks for hundreds of children, lovingly filled with colored pencils, notebooks, markers, folders, pencils, and other stationery, so they can return to school feeling prepared to focus on their studies.

With in-person learning temporarily on hold during the pandemic, volunteers knew students studying remotely would need further support. Therefore, volunteers regularly brought groceries and cash cards in addition to stationery supplies for low-income community residents. A wider variety of school supplies were included as well, such as miniature blackboards.

As COVID-19 vaccination rates increase and schools continue to announce the return of in-person learning, many of Tzu Chi’s relief activities will resume as well. At the end of August, Tzu Chi’s Greater Washington D.C. Region Branch will once again be offering school supplies for seven schools, including JoAnn Leleck Elementary School, Rosa L. Parks Elementary School, Summit Hall Elementary School, and Silver Spring International Middle School.

Rosa L. Parks Elementary School is a new partner as of January. This partnership was formed thanks to Ivana Fields, a social worker from the school district. Ivana met Tzu Chi while working at another school in Montgomery County, and witnessed how the efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers were making a difference in the lives of many families.

“I saw the work Tzu Chi was doing to help families in need, and I believe in their mission to help alleviate suffering,” said Ivana. Since then, she’s been a most remarkable guide as volunteers

continue reaching out to Rosa L. Parks Elementary School for food distribution activities. More than 300 students from this school will receive supplies from Tzu Chi this year.

In May of 2021, several volunteers deliver food to low-income families at Rosa L. Parks Elementary School. Photo/Wendy Tsai

A Wave of Warmth in Winter

Tzu Chi USA’s Washington D.C. Region is not the only Tzu Chi chapter that helps ensure children have the care and resources they require to reach their potential. Tzu Chi’s chapters in Texas also hold charitable activities regularly, and this year, young volunteers from Tzu Chi’s Pacific Islands Region organized a meaningful fundraiser to help low-income families as well.

According to United Way statistics, “On any given night, 5,000 people are homeless on Oahu.” Furthermore, many families experiencing homelessness have children under the age of twelve. Without shelter, persons contend with augmented infection rates and the absence of healthcare resources in addition to the challenges already faced — like finding warmth in the winter.

Tzu Chi volunteer Josh Wang organizes donated clothing. Photo/Tzu Chi Pacific Islands Region
The community donates clean and warm clothing. Photo/Tzu Chi Pacific Islands Region

After becoming familiar with the Nānākuli-Wai’anae Complex Schools in mid-January, the youth volunteers from Tzu Chi’s Pacific Islands region were determined to organize a donation drive to help children experiencing temporary homelessness. Every Tuesday through Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM from February 4 to March 13, 2021, Tzu Chi volunteers received clothing donations to help meet the needs of community members. Tzu Chi likewise called on the community to donate gently worn, clean clothing to provide love and warmth to families in Oahu, HI.

The participating youth volunteers understood the transformative power of concerted, loving efforts within one’s community first-hand through this mission. And when asked about this practice, volunteer Josh Wang replied, “Through this activity, I’ve learned responsibility. Since I joined, I’ve persevered, and I’ll continue ‘till the end to benefit the community.’”

Elaine Liu, a sophomore at Iolani School, helped create flyers for students to distribute to their schools and communities. Elaine Liu told us that her mother is also a Tzu Chi volunteer, and introduced her to the event as a way of guiding her to give back to the community. “The program is uncomplicated: we organize clothing donations and distribute them to families in need,” explained Elaine. “With an hour or two of participation, we can really help our community.”

Across the U.S., Tzu Chi volunteers mobilize to uplift their communities and provide a steady and safe foundation. Whether in the form of clothing or school supplies, Tzu Chi’s donations, too, will ensure students know their Tzu Chi family is here for them, always.


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