Those Who Answer Haiti’s Cry for Help

By Ida Eva Zielinska

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.

During the disaster assessment led by Johnson Chang (left), a local volunteer can’t contain his grief over the current suffering of his people. Photo/Réginald Louissaint Junior

At first, I didn’t know what Tzu Chi was doing in the country. The more I worked with Tzu Chi volunteers, the more I realized that Tzu Chi is a huge organization, and I feel very good to help with these people who came from all over to help us.

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.”

The first meeting with the group [from Tzu Chi] when I arrived in Jérémie was amazing. You could feel their dedication. From there, I told myself, ‘Why not?’ Because my values were there: Love, respect, dignity, and brotherhood.

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.

The class of local volunteers listens and learns attentively during the training session on September 4, 2021. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

I choose to be a volunteer because there are a lot of people in my country who need help, so I put myself in a position to help them and help them sincerely, help them with all my heart through the training that I’ve received from Master Cheng Yen. The most important thing for me it’s learning to help with our heart.

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.”

The class of local volunteers in Beaumont connects with Tzu Chi volunteer Curtis Hsing who conducts the training virtually from the United States. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

As the coorganizer of the training, Gabrielle was most pleased about the turnout and results, especially given the community’s level of need.

Certainly, there are many needs, many people are in need, but I think what we’re doing today is making a difference. The fact that community members have chosen to become volunteers to share with others what Tzu Chi brings to the community is a great experience. We have a very good team. They were here on time, that’s the first thing. They attended the training for two hours straight without complaining, without looking tired or upset. They really enjoyed the training. It’s something they wanted and that’s why they’re here today.

Since the earthquake, many people live in makeshift tents along the side of the road in the Beaumont City area. Photo/Keziah Jean

And, happy they were, each of the 20 participants most enthusiastic about beginning to serve during disaster aid distributions in their city.

We come from the community and this is where we grew up. I believe that with the dialogue and the instructions received, we’ll be able to support the people in a correct way. We’re happy and feel good about serving the community.

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.

For large-scale disaster relief, Jing Si Rice is a meal that can be prepared fast and is nutritious. It’s very helpful and useful for disaster survivors.

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:

Four key volunteers followed me to learn how to make Jing Si Rice. We’ll bring Jing Si Rice to the disaster area to make hot meals to provide to disaster survivors. Later, when they go to disaster areas, they can teach the people there so they can start to make daily hot meals.

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.)

Everyone finds it to be so delicious and likes it.

A team of key local volunteers learns how to cook Jing Si Instant Rice. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
The key volunteers are thrilled to share the hot Jing Si Rice meal they learned to make with the rest of their training class. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

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.

Tzu Chi volunteer James Ocean and local residents unload the relief supplies arriving from Port-au-Prince in Les Cayes on September 5, 2021. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer Alberthe Merveille (right) helps James Ocean (left) in his quest to offer cleaning products to those struggling to recover after the earthquake. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

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.

Some Taiwanese people came here to help Haitians impacted by the earthquake. So, why shouldn’t I, as a Haitian, do the same? Why shouldn’t I help my fellow Haitians to the best of my ability with the means at my disposal? I’m just giving what I have to help. If I had rice and peas, I would give them. But what I have is a liquid detergent, so that’s what I’ll give.

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.

Sharing is a spiritual thing that comes from God. So, it is important to learn to share. When you give, you can expect to receive. It’s like an appointment with the sun. It sets at 6:00 PM and tomorrow we’re sure it will rise again.

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.

I have food to eat, yes, I’m very happy. You did something really big for us, so thank you, thank you.

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:

My father introduced me to this event. Before, when I wanted to participate, he told me that I was too young, but at 16, I asked him to participate again, and he agreed and invited me along.

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 not only my daughter who wants to be involved; it’s all of my family because they say this activity is a blessing. [What I’ve learned from Master Cheng Yen], I share this at home and in my area. And, as a father, I consider each volunteer like my child.

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?”

A local volunteer serving in Beaumont helps guide care recipients so everything will run smoothly. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Jennyva Ocean is following in her father’s footsteps in joining the Tzu Chi team in Haiti, starting out as a local volunteer. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team


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