The Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters Region’s Las Vegas Service Center commemorates 20 years of service with a Lunar New Year 2023 celebration. Photo/James Huang
Written by Audrey Cheng
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Published #68 | Spring 2023 Issue
For two decades, Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas volunteers have carried forth community service missions with a care that’s central to their approach, and a heart of gratitude for being able to help in a deeply personal way. Reflecting upon this, Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, has likened their aid under the city’s iconic lights to “a lotus that blooms in the city of Las Vegas.”
This year, on February 12, 2023, just a short distance away from the neon lights on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas Service Center celebrated its 20th birthday at the Flamingo Clark County Library Theater. In recognition of this spirit of service, the special commemorative event also invited the community to gather together in joy for all that’s yet to come.
Established in 2002, Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas Service Center has delivered international disaster relief, organized bone marrow drives, food distribution events, support for youths, promoted environmental protection, and so much more. Now, volunteers will keep the momentum going by adding a new service to help the community: Vision care via a brand new Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic unit.
Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinics bring free vision care services that change lives. Fully staffed by volunteers and outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, patients can receive vision screenings, eye exams, prescription lenses, and stylish frames – all for free and usually within the same day. This unit is the 10th mobile unit from Tzu Chi Medical Foundation and offers crucial support for students and people who are uninsured or underinsured.
A Community Responds to an Emergency
On August 17, 1999, three professors, two family members, and eleven students from the Department of Business Administration at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan toured the Western United States. Tragically, a fatal road accident in Death Valley took the lives of four students, seriously injured another student, and hurt several others.
After the accident, Chung Cheng University contacted local community members through various channels for assistance. One such individual approached for help in Las Vegas was Audrey Cheng, the elder sister of a law professor at National Chung Cheng University. At that time, a Tzu Chi service center did not exist in Las Vegas, so Tzu Chi USA quickly mobilized volunteers from the Phoenix Service Center in Arizona and Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters in San Dimas, California. Audrey Cheng, a local newspaper reporter, brought the event to light and called upon others to organize and help a hospitalized survivor, a student by the name of Mr. Deng.
Mr. Deng remained in the hospital for several months, and the local community members who helped him became the initial members of Tzu Chi USA’s volunteer team in Las Vegas. Since then, volunteers Joanne Chen, Juliet Lee, and Gemma Tsao have worked tirelessly to establish a caring Tzu Chi community in Las Vegas. Their efforts ultimately paid off, and on November 19, 2002, Joanne Chen became the first director of Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas Service Center. Juliet Lee played a key role in procuring N95 masks during the SARS outbreak of 2003, and Gemma Tsao put on the first bone marrow drive in Chinatown. Thus, Tzu Chi officially made its debut in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is a city that’s well-known worldwide, often characterized by its neon lights, lively atmosphere, and the clanking of slot machines. Thus, there are also casino dealers among the volunteer team who rely on their jobs to make a living. Yet, they wondered if it would be self-defeating or contentious for them to call on people to quit gambling. Some new volunteers had been reluctant to continue their jobs as casino dealers. After repeated discussions, they accepted the notion that casino dealers provide a service that people look forward to on vacation as a way to unwind. However, they still believed that dealers should not sit by idly if they notice someone who may be dealing with a gambling addiction, unable to extricate themselves without help. In these situations, they readily inform guests of phone numbers for organizations that help.
Beginning in 2003, volunteers recruited more new members through English language classes, vegetarian cooking classes, and banquets. They extended the reach of their charity missions by visiting individual care recipients, with some care cases spanning longer periods. They additionally urged and organized volunteers to send aid to El Salvador, Peru, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, and beyond by joining Tzu Chi’s international disaster relief program. Volunteers mobilized to work in San Diego following a wildfire in California and aided in Texas and New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.
After Hurricane Katrina, economic strife in the United States gradually surfaced. Long after the storm, most of the impacted homes in New Orleans had not yet been rebuilt, reminding people of the depths of the flooding and their sorrow. Feeling that the circumstances left them with no other choice, many medical workers relocated to find work elsewhere. Likewise, local community members expressed a feeling that they were still emotionally bobbing in the turbulent waves, uncertain of their future in Louisiana – perhaps especially due to the state’s location on the Gulf Coast and regularly experiencing the effects of damaging storms. “When I close my eyes, it seems that choking seawater is forcing its way into me,” one hurricane survivor told volunteers.
Some people chose to leave the area, moving to Las Vegas. In addition to participating in disaster relief, Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas volunteers assisted and counseled Hurricane Katrina survivors referred by the Long-Term Recovery Committee and other charitable organizations, helping survivors along their path to recovery.
Backpacks Filled With Love Bring Hope to Students
Although the government helped disaster survivors who relocated to Las Vegas, many families were affected by food or housing insecurity. Schools provided free lunch on school days, but children had limited or uncertain food availability on weekends. Volunteers discovered that some children tried to sleep all day long so they might forget their hunger, and some children added hot water to McDonald’s ketchup to make tomato soup. These heart-rending stories ushered in the School Backpacks Program in 2006, the first taking place at John S. Park Elementary School’s indoor gymnasium.
Free Meals With Friends in the Desert
In Henderson, Nevada, among the fastest-growing cities in the United States, Friends in The Desert Foundation, Inc. serves hot sit-down meals to unhoused neighbors six days per week and distributes sack lunches on Saturdays. It has served the community since 1998.
In 2006, Tzu Chi volunteers began to provide vegetarian food at Friends in The Desert Foundation, Inc., seeing to it that every step of the way would be carefully tended to, from meal preparation to cooking, to setting the table and chatting with diners. Volunteers also organized entertaining performances so that every activity would be the best it could be.
Food, Celebrations, and Wellness
Since the establishment of the Blind Center of Nevada in Las Vegas, the Lions Club, and private organizations have provided free lunches for approximately 70 people on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Financial constraints made it necessary to skip Tuesdays when the facility provided tacos for purchase. However, for some, Tuesday had become synonymous with hunger, unable to afford to eat just one meal a day.
In April 2007, Las Vegas volunteers began visiting the center every Tuesday to offer company and make lunch. They additionally hold a birthday celebration each month, and help Dr. Merek, a podiatrist, once every three months by washing and soaking Blind Center of Nevada members’ feet for easier nail care.
Taking on Environmental Responsibility
From July 2007 to March 2008, Tzu Chi promoted a campaign advocating the individuals’ responsibility to reduce carbon emissions that cause collective harm. To gain support within the community, volunteers visited people and organizations, sharing ways they could join hands with this grassroots campaign.
Kurtis Chen, the then-general manager of Dinghao Supermarket, strongly supported Tzu Chi’s initiative. He arranged for Tzu Chi to set up a booth in Dinghao Plaza every Monday from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM starting on February 9, 2007. At the booth, volunteers recycled aluminum cans and plastic water bottles. Every Thursday from 2:00 to 4:00 PM, a Tzu Chi vehicle made its rounds at organizations or companies to collect recycling materials in the hopes that their presence might bring awareness to the issue of damaging pollutants that enter our natural environment. Moreover, they hoped to inspire others to participate in sustainable practices like recycling and choosing reusable alternatives over single-use plastics.
Later, a new owner purchased Dinghao Supermarket, and Kurtis Chen became a teacher. However, he continued to work with Tzu Chi on its path of protecting the Earth until he had to start a new course. Volunteers Cheng Ho Chen and Tanya So took over for Kurtis Chen at the supermarket. During this period, the recycling efforts attracted many people to join in, indeed.
Care After Automobile Accidents
In 2008, three exchange students from China – two doctoral candidates and another graduate – lost their lives in a road accident near the Grand Canyon. At 4:00 PM on January 30, 2009, roughly 190 miles northwest of Arizona, near the Hoover Dam, a tour bus overturned on Highway 93 on its return trip to Las Vegas, killing seven passengers on board and seriously injuring five others. Another five individuals suffered minor injuries. The 15 tourists in the car were all from Shanghai and Hangzhou tour groups, plus a tour guide and a driver. The tour group included 20 people from five families. In 2010, a group of Chinese visitors who came to learn about highway construction projects in the United States also passed away in a car accident about 10 minutes from the previous location. Volunteers in Las Vegas went to the hospital daily to deliver meals, provide translation assistance, and aid the survivors of these tragic accidents with various needs.
An All-Encompassing Heart
In 2014, several volunteers from Nevada were allowed to participate in volunteer training organized by the State of Nevada Department of Corrections. That August, volunteers went to the Clark County Detention Center’s North Valley Complex in Las Vegas for the first time. The main driving force for this project came from volunteers Kelvin Chen, Nain Lai, and Johan Alwall from Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters in San Dimas, with Las Vegas volunteers joining them to learn from their experience.
In January 2016, Las Vegas volunteers Christine Fisk and Audrey Cheng took the lead for visits to the Clark County Detention Center to share Buddhist teachings with those incarcerated there. Since then, the third Saturday of each month has become a standing appointment. Additionally, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation in 2020, and they learned of rising infection rates in correctional facilities, the volunteers donated 2,800 masks to help flatten the curve.
Routine Free Dental and Vision Care Outreach
According to the Nevada Homeless Alliance, 13,076 Southern Nevadans, including families with children, will experience homelessness at some point this year. Many unsheltered young people in Las Vegas are also survivors of domestic violence. Las Vegas volunteers have distributed hot meals to people experiencing homelessness since 2007 and have provided free dental clinics since 2015. By working together, volunteers will continue to cultivate a cycle of care that touches ever more lives.
The Las Vegas medical volunteer team has called upon caring doctors in the community to join the free clinic team and help it grow. Since its establishment in 2015, Tzu Chi Las Vegas has held 13 free clinics and added a free ophthalmology clinic in 2019. By working together, there’s no end to the good they can achieve in the region.
It’s been quite a remarkable two decades of service for the Las Vegas volunteer team. May the Las Vegas Service Center’s activities flourish going forward, with its volunteers offering compassion and relief for many more years.