Helping Families Turn Their Lives Around

Multiple wildfires, such as the Dixie Fire whose aftermath is seen here, cause severe financial losses on the U.S. West Coast in 2021. Photo/C.M. Yung

By Jennifer Chien
Translated by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska


People who are usually self-reliant are not accustomed to ask for help like others. When Tzu Chi volunteers help these families, the first thing they must do is to make them feel comfortable asking for help.

With Tzu Chi’s financial aid, wildfire survivors Omar and Bianca Meza and their two young children can temporarily stay in a motel while they look for a new permanent home. Photo/Dan Ferrara

It’s all about listening, observing, paying close attention sensitively, patiently, and with heart, Renee Chao, a Tzu Chi volunteer who helps other volunteers complete their charity work and is also a social worker, believes.

After a disaster or other unexpected challenges strike a blow that plunges people into a stressful freefall of financial, logistical, and for some, even psychological problems, a helping hand can break that descent into deepening despair and terrifying uncertainty. And yet, Renee has witnessed how some people in urgent need of extra assistance don’t necessarily ask for it, especially families who courageously try their best to overcome their accumulating troubles independently.

When facing great trials and tribulations and their associated financial hardships, people may feel lost and confused about how best to proceed. From Renee’s experience, “Many times, just being with them is important and beneficial – it helps them reestablish their courage and the confidence to think ‘I can turn it around.’ Only then will they actually be able to turn it around.”

Let’s see what this means in real life through the example of two long-term charity care cases that Tzu Chi USA took on in California in 2021.

Everything Is Gone

A distraught expression appeared on her face as Bianca Meza, a kindergarten teacher from Fontana in Southern California, recounted what she and her husband Omar Meza tragically experienced during the South Fire in August 2021. As the blaze encroached, at first, Omar and her father bravely stayed and tried to extinguish the flames once they reached the couple’s home.

But, it was to no avail: The wildfire proved too fast and fierce and overpowered them. Soon, the entire property was swallowed up and destroyed in the inferno.

You see fires happen on television, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. My home burned down. There is nothing left.

The Mezas bought their house five years ago and spent countless evenings staying up late to renovate and decorate, making it a warm and unique home of their own. Overnight, the South Fire transformed everything they had owned into ashes and charred remnants. Bianca couldn’t hold back her tears when she stopped for gas while driving away from the fire-razed area with her two children.

Her five-year-old son asked with a sad, confused look: “Where are we going to sleep tonight? What will we have for dinner?” Bianca had no answer to give. As she hugged her three-week-old daughter, she told herself that her two children can’t be homeless. She had to pull herself together and not panic because her kids depended on her.

Without anywhere to go, the Meza family spent that first night in their cars. At five o’clock the next morning, Omar had to rush to work while Bianca assumed the task of looking for an apartment, hardly expecting the challenges that lay ahead.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused rent in Southern California to spike by 20 to 30%. The state government prohibited eviction during this period, making landlords more stringent when reviewing prospective tenants’ identity papers and credit records. This would prove to be a problem for the Mezas:

All our identification and tax documents were in our home, and now we don’t have anything with us to apply for an apartment.

Tzu Chi volunteer Renee Chao visits Bianca Meza and her family in the motel they are staying at, bringing food. Photo/Dan Ferrara

Bianca had been on maternity leave before the fire, and now, knowing that they had only one income, the couple felt uneasy splurging on a hotel room. Instead, they circulated between the houses of family and friends, spending a few days in each living room. Sometimes, they risked sleeping in their cars on the street.

We met Bianca and her family during a disaster relief distribution and realized that they desperately needed our help. So, we decided to consider them [as a long-term charity care case].

Ai Peng Lee, who assists in running Tzu Chi’s charity projects, shared that, “There are so many who need our help, and they don’t even know what they need, how or from whom to ask for help. Perhaps their educational background and experience make them ashamed of asking for help from others.”

Silent Cries for Help

Volunteers have to be very careful with charity work, to notice what others do not, and hear the unspoken real needs of disaster survivors.

When Tzu Chi volunteer Ai Peng Lee first met Bianca Meza, the need to be attentive and observant was foremost in her mind and heart. And, their interaction soon proved Ai Peng’s intuition to be correct: The young mother would not readily ask for a helping hand in surmounting the family’s most distressing current circumstances.

“I’m Hispanic American. My father has always taught us to be strong and independent,” Bianca, who has a college degree, said. Both Bianca and her husband Omar are skilled workers. Their spirit of independence and self-reliance meant they never even considered asking for help. But as they were being turned down for rental housing, again and again, an enormous sense of pressure gripped Bianca, suffocating her.

After the South Fire ignited and caused its damage, Tzu Chi volunteers received a list of affected households from the American Red Cross and mobilized for disaster relief work. Tzu Chi volunteer Kari Lin Liu, who oversees charity work in Southern California, vividly remembers when she found out about Bianca and her family’s situation:

When I called Bianca to pick up the cash card, I found out that they had a three-week-old newborn and a five-year-old child and that they were either sleeping in their car or going around friends’ houses. I couldn’t believe that she had to suffer the disaster such a short time after giving birth, and my heart went out to her. I thought we had to help her with more than just a cash card.

The cash card would just be the start of Tzu Chi USA’s charity aid for this family. When Bianca came to pick it up, Tzu Chi volunteers had also prepared face masks, personal hygiene products, and second-hand clothes for them to select. After that, as the next phase of assistance, Tzu Chi provided three months of financial aid, enough for Bianca and her family to stay in a motel for now. During this time, Tzu Chi volunteers called every two to three days to check on the family and frequently visited, bringing formula, diapers, clothes for the baby, and toys for the couple’s young son, all of these supplies easing Bianca’s immediate needs and worries.

The volunteers have kept in contact with us, bringing us what we need and telling us that it’s okay to accept help in emergency situations. They are generous and giving, and they respect us.

After losing their home in the South Fire, husband and wife Omar and Bianca Meza receive a cash card as emergency disaster relief from Tzu Chi USA on September 2. Photo/Michael Tseng
Bianca and Omar Meza choose second-hand clothing for themselves and their children at Tzu Chi USA Headquarters. Photo/Michael Tseng

Thanks to the focused efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers, the Meza family is now on a more solid path to recovery after the South Fire turned their lives completely upside down, forcing them to start over from zero. And, their family is not the only one to receive such a leg up in 2021.

Bianca Meza trusts Tzu Chi volunteers to hold her child when they visit. Photo/Dan Ferrara

One Challenge After Another

For Mary (a pseudonym to protect her identity), a single mother from El Salvador, becoming a Tzu Chi USA long-term charity care case in 2021 marked the beginning of hope. Mary and her children had endured a string of traumas that seemed to descend without pause, starting with the family’s escape from their homeland, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with rampant gang violence.

Mary used to be a primary school teacher in El Salvador before she, her four children, and a grandchild fled to the United States due to death threats. Their passage, bought through a smuggling group, was full of dangers such as violent robbery, rape, and murder. One of Mary’s daughters tragically lost her life along their terrifying journey.

Once Mary and the others made it to the U.S., they first lived in the Malibu area of Los Angeles, where she found employment as a nanny. David, her youngest son, was still attending high school, but her older son and daughter also took on part-time jobs, and the household was financially stable. And yet, Mary may have still been emotionally fragile as she secretly processed the loss of her daughter and the terrors the rest of the family somehow survived.

And then, in 2018, the Woolsey Fire burned down Mary’s employer’s home, and chaos returned to this brave, steadfast single mother’s life. The family moved to an inland area in Southern California, and Mary found another family who needed a live-in nanny. But before long, the COVID-19 pandemic swept in, and she could no longer work at her employer’s house. Having lost this primary source of income, the family immediately spun into a dangerous spiral of increasing debt and poverty.

Feeling utterly helpless, Mary sank into a deep depression and could no longer communicate with anyone outside her family. However, she did not foresee that Tzu Chi USA’s Woolsey Fire disaster relief was not short-lived. Tzu Chi volunteers had kept up with the recovery progress of those affected by the wildfire and sustained close contact with their regional partner, the Malibu Boys & Girls Club, to maintain an ongoing understanding of needs in the area.

In early 2021, Tzu Chi volunteers went to the Club to organize a Spring Festival distribution event, as they always did. The Club mentioned what was sadly going on with Mary and her family to the volunteers. It turned out that, indeed, the shocks and ordeals she had experienced during the escape from El Salvador had never really gone away.

In the past, when Mary had to work hard raising three children and a grandson in a foreign country, she had no choice but to put everything behind her. But now that she’d lost her job and felt frustrated and discouraged since she could only speak Spanish, she began to revisit her guilt for not being able to save her daughter.

The volunteers learned that grief had overwhelmed this strong mother, and she began to exhibit symptoms of prolonged depression, spending whole days in tears. Mary’s kids tried to support the family by venturing out for odd jobs during the pandemic. Even David decided to temporarily withdraw from school to help earn money for the family.

Taking note of all this, Tzu Chi USA took Mary and her family on as a long-term care case. They provided them with a three-month rent subsidy and encouraged David to return to university since this aid reduced the family’s pressing financial burden. And, most importantly, the volunteers’ warmth and respect had reopened Mary’s suffering heart. With this burst of financial assistance, she began to calm down.

Today, after half a year of assistance and companionship from Tzu Chi USA, Mary’s son David announced in the summer of 2021:

I’m going back to college in the fall, and I have also found a full-time job during the day. Thank you for getting me through this difficult period!

Under Tzu Chi USA’s long-term care, Mary’s family is now also turning their lives around, and there is finally light on the horizon for this brave and hard-working single mother, once again.

Near the end of 2020, as long-term disaster recovery support, Tzu Chi volunteers distribute cash cards at the Malibu Boys & Girls Club to those affected by the 2018 Woolsey Fire. Photo/Shuli Lo


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