A Tzu Chi local volunteer assists a mother with an infant by carrying the rice she received at one of Tzu Chi Haiti earthquake disaster relief distributions. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
What can I do to help all those suffering in my country right now?” That could easily be a question in the mind of someone in Haiti following the August 14, 2021 earthquake, whose heart yearns to relieve the anguish of those affected as they bear the heavy burden of post-disaster loss, distress, and the demands of recovery. Thousands of families suddenly found themselves with their homes destroyed, lacking potable water, sufficient food, and more.
Going to the hardest-hit areas as part of Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer Johnson Chang’s disaster assessment team in the days after the catastrophe was heartbreaking for many of Tzu Chi’s local volunteers. Even men, typically slow to tears, couldn’t hold back their emotions at times.
For some Haitians, participating as a local volunteer in Tzu Chi’s disaster relief and ongoing aid activities in their country has become a way of answering their fellows’ call for help in times of need. Tzu Chi’s worldwide missions rely on such networks of local volunteers, and it’s no different in this Caribbean nation. Community volunteer support is essential to immediate aid, long-term recovery efforts, and ongoing charity programs.
The involvement of these kind-hearted individuals has been instrumental during the 2021 Haiti earthquake relief effort as well. Some had only recently started on this journey of community service. Others have been local volunteers (who wear a Tzu Chi vest while on a mission) for several years, deciding to join after observing Tzu Chi’s activities in Haiti for quite some time.
And, some, those wearing a grey shirt uniform, have committed to deeper involvement with Tzu Chi and the Buddhist teachings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen. After ongoing training, they aim to progress to complete certification, at which point they can wear the official Tzu Chi volunteer uniform, a dark blue shirt, and white pants.
James Ocean is on that path and currently wears a grey Tzu Chi shirt. He decided to start volunteering with Tzu Chi Haiti in 2013. His motivation was rooted in witnessing Tzu Chi’s aid in the aftermath of a tragic and calamitous earthquake more than a decade earlier. “I saw the way they were helping Haiti in 2010, and I appreciated the way they did that,” he says.
For Gabrielle Paul, a community leader from Jérémie in Haiti’s Grand’Anse Department, her association with Tzu Chi began five years ago. “It was in October 2016, after Hurricane Matthew hit my hometown,” she recounts. A former member of the local government said he would put her in contact with “an amazing group from Taiwan.”
Training Is the Start of Their Volunteer Path
All new community volunteers receive training from experienced Tzu Chi volunteers before they go into the field. This preparation helps them better understand the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s compassionate vision and approach to charity aid established by Master Cheng Yen. The latest cohort to join received training as well, with three sessions offered so far.
On September 4, in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the new group of local volunteers watched videos of Master Cheng Yen offering Buddhist teachings and guidance on the necessity of putting compassion into action whole-heartedly. They also learned proper protocol when offering aid supplies, respecting care recipients’ dignity even in times of need, and other core aspects of volunteering with Tzu Chi.
There was a second training session on September 13. This time, the latest local volunteer group received instruction on how to fill out case forms, home visits protocol, and reporting back. Both training sessions in Port-au-Prince prepared the teams for imminent distributions of food and other supplies in Les Cayes, a city in the country’s Sud Department severely impacted by the earthquake. And, they were conducted in person by members of the Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team from the United States.
A day ahead of a disaster aid distribution to be held there, a third training session took place on September 29, in Beaumont City in Haiti’s Grand’Anse Department, equally hard-hit by the catastrophe. The Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team had already returned to the U.S. by then after two weeks and several distributions in Les Cayes (chronicled in this issue’s cover story on page six). Thus, Tzu Chi volunteer Curtis Hsing streamed in virtual-ly while local volunteer Gabrielle Paul, who helped manage and organize the training, was on-site in Beaumont.
Despite occasional connectivity issues, the 20 new volunteers connected with Curtis, his guidance, and the manner in which he taught. Marlène Jean-Louis, one of the participants, said, “It was like being in front of the person in charge because of the way he spoke, the way he wanted to see us, and the joy he felt when he saw us.” Gizda Sejour, another participant, shared, “there was a lot of respect in his message. I can’t wait to learn more about Tzu Chi.”
As the coorganizer of the training, Gabrielle was most pleased about the turnout and results, especially given the community’s level of need.
And, happy they were, each of the 20 participants most enthusiastic about beginning to serve during disaster aid distributions in their city.
Learning to Cook Jing Si Rice Is Part of Tzu Chi’s Training
There was another component to the training provided during the 2021 earthquake relief mission: Teaching the volunteers how to prepare Tzu Chi’s signature Jing Si Instant Rice.
This training was for a select team of key volunteers and took place alongside the general training session on September 4 in Port-au-Prince, as Tzu Chi USA volunteer James Chen, who taught them, explained:
When the hot meal was ready, the key volunteers took it back to the whole class so that everyone could enjoy the special rice as lunch for the day. (See page 63 for more information about Jing Si Instant Rice and where to buy it.)
Serving With All Their Hearts
Before the distributions began, the Tzu Chi Haiti team of advanced and new local volunteers had tasks to attend to, some not without peril. For instance, on Sunday, September 5, the team loaded five trucks and began transporting relief supplies from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes in advance of the first distribution there on Wednesday.
It was a dangerous venture given a heightened level of gang activity recently, as the trip would take the trucks through hostile territories. Nonetheless, James Ocean and Daphna Laguerre were up for the job and got to Les Cayes safely, even with a stress-inducing flat tire along the way.
Actually, James Ocean went above and beyond what Tzu Chi’s plans required on this mission. He recognized that cleaning up after a major disaster is the first imperative, as is doing laundry even under challenging conditions. Being an industrial chemist, he was inspired to develop a multipurpose liquid detergent for laundry, dishes, and household surfaces, using easy-to-find ingredients that he paid for himself.
James began mixing and bottling his product to donate to families impacted by the earthquake. He had already produced 160 bottles when Tzu Chi USA volunteer James Chen heard about his project and encouraged him to make more, the Tzu Chi USA team funding the purchase of additional ingredients. Fellow volunteer Alberthe Merveille was glad to help James and speed up the production process so that the detergent could reach earthquake-impacted families during disaster relief distributions.
Being on the Forefront of Providing Aid
Finally, it was participating in disaster relief distributions, first in Les Cayes, then in Beaumont, that warmed the hearts of the local volunteers in Haiti. This is what they had aspired to do, and had trained for: Helping their fellow Haitians in their time of need. Moreover, they were doing it together, as a local team that will eventually rely on outside support less and less. It’s a story of “true cooperation” in Gabrielle Paul’s eyes. And, the voices of care recipients ringing with cheer as they left distribution sites, knowing they no longer had to stress about finding their next meal, were the local volunteers’ principal reason to rejoice.
The Urge to Help Is Awakening in Others
More and more Haitians are answering the call for help from their people and joining the Tzu Chi team. For some, it’s a family affair:
Jennyva, James Ocean’s daughter, is a second-generation volunteer who followed her heartfelt urge to join the Tzu Chi team. But according to her father, she’s not the only one.
It’s a journey of love that drives Tzu Chi’s community volunteers in Haiti, forever joyful about being able to help those in need. It’s also the story of compassionate giving without any expectation of receiving something in return. And, it’s about caring for the next generation, one that cannot escape the continual adversity that has marked the history of Haiti in recent times. Finally, perhaps James Ocean’s words summarize the intent of all Tzu Chi local volunteers in Haiti best: “There’s poverty, natural tragedies; I want to always be present.” And why? So he can help. For these Haitians, this is their answer to the question at the start of this story: “What can I do to help all those suffering in my country right now?”