Embarking on a Transformative 30-Year Journey:

From Free Clinic to Health Centers

Debra Boudreaux uses a hand gesture as she speaks about Master Cheng Yen’s guidance that peace and love must combine compassion and wisdom, just like one needs two hands to make the shape of a heart.
Debra Boudreaux uses a hand gesture as she speaks about Master Cheng Yen’s guidance that peace and love must combine compassion and wisdom, just like one needs two hands to make the shape of a heart. Photo/Ting Fan


The inception of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, California, in 1993 marked the commencement of a transformative 30-year journey in the United States. This clinic became more than just a healthcare facility; it served as a cornerstone for personal growth, nurturing a humanitarian spirit that transcended cultural and ethnic boundaries.

As a young medical volunteer, I became part of this remarkable journey, filled with unforgettable moments that continue to propel us forward, echoing the sentiments of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, who emphasizes that “giving is more fortunate than receiving.”

Over the years, Tzu Chi USA’s medical mission expanded its impact, from establishing a free clinic to health centers and medical outreach across Southern California. Tzu Chi Health Centers provide a range of services to vulnerable communities, including medical, dental, alternative medicine, and vision care. Notable milestones included introducing bus transportation services for medical outreach in 1995, establishing the first mobile clinic in Panorama City, Los Angeles, in 2000, and a recent gathering in San Bernardino in 2022 to strategize community service initiatives. Our medical outreach has established its own Electronic Health Record system to track community health indicators. Volunteers from diverse backgrounds have devoted their time selflessly, embodying the true spirit of giving.

Collaboration and community engagement have been at the heart of Tzu Chi’s mission. In tandem with local representatives, Tzu Chi USA actively sought ways to deepen its roots in the community and collaborate effectively with other charities. Discussions revolved around addressing specific needs, such as providing mass care supports for farmworkers and dental services. The medical outreach, reaching migrant farmers along Highway 99 since 2000, became a testament to Tzu Chi’s commitment to preventive care.

Tzu Chi USA’s medical outreach was impactful as it extended beyond the provision of health care. It created a safety net for the vulnerable, infused with the power of love that touched countless community residents. Tzu Chi USA formed lasting bonds through free clinics, food bag distributions, and humanistic education, collaborating with organizations like the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), local school districts, migrant farmworker associations, and community groups.

Diverse voices, including those of Congress members, mayors, and community leaders, converged at gatherings to share experiences and discuss plans. The success of Tzu Chi’s initiatives emerged from the collective efforts of individuals working towards a shared mission, spanning local, state, federal, and global levels. In times of disaster, Tzu Chi volunteers and TIMA members were consistently called to action, exemplifying the boundless nature of great love.

Notable figures, such as Congressman Mark Takano, highlighted the significant impact of Tzu Chi’s charitable work in providing health care to disadvantaged communities. The collaboration between people of different ethnicities and backgrounds emerged as an inspiring and heartwarming aspect of Tzu Chi’s efforts.

Community needs became focal points in the collaborative endeavors that ranged from supporting unhoused students to addressing water hygiene and sanitation issues. The journey, marked by milestones like the 27th anniversary of care in San Bernardino, underscored the evolution from a humble free clinic to a network of healthcare services across the United States. It emphasized why combining strengths, resources, and diverse perspectives is essential to build a more compassionate community.

The invisible power of Tzu Chi’s medical services unified professional and non-professional volunteers, transforming compassionate hearts into positive energy. This energy provided patients and their families with a sense of self-care, opportunities for interaction with healthcare providers, and access to essential dental and vision care.

The operation’s expansion from one free clinic to three community clinics that became health centers with Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike status showcased a commitment to community needs. The focus shifted towards preventive care and expanded support for family socioeconomic well-being.

Looking ahead to the next 30 years of Tzu Chi USA’s medical mission, we envision a patient-centered total care – or Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) – service. The challenges of an aging population, declining national birth rates, and an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers necessitate more comprehensive support. The scope will extend beyond a single-stop service to include in-home support, assisted living, nursing home care, and even hospice care. The strengthened engagement capacity of Tzu Chi volunteers and TIMA members will provide robust spiritual and technical support.

Tzu Chi USA’s medical care mission is ready to elevate to a higher-level service, transforming from health centers into a comprehensive medical service network. Collaborations with local healthcare providers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospital multilateral teams will provide culturally inclusive support.

The program aims to inspire intergenerational groups to participate, observe, identify personal career paths, and address community needs regarding care for the vulnerable when required. Reflecting on American Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and inspired by Master Cheng Yen’s call to cultivate better and positive karma through good deeds, each one of us holds the potential to turn our dreams into reality. Through medical care, we aspire to offer those we serve hope, a guiding light, and a direction to move forward. As for ourselves, we hope to both give and receive love, fostering a sense of expansive self-care that embraces one and all.

Irrespective of whether the focus of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation shifts towards serving the needs of Generation Z or providing eldercare services, a fundamental core value remains constant: A commitment to address the community’s medical needs, encompassing both treatment and preventative care. While the physical confines of Tzu Chi USA’s medical office space may be limited, our support network extends far beyond conventional boundaries. The linchpin of this operation lies in the compassionate hearts of healthcare providers and the unwavering dedication of volunteers who tirelessly offer their services and support, all without seeking anything in return.

“Serving with compassion, offering relief with joy” encapsulates the essence of Tzu Chi. In times of pain, we feel the hurt; in times of suffering, we experience the mercy of compassion. As a faith-based grassroots organization, Tzu Chi views medical care not merely as professional treatment but as care rooted in hope and love, characterized by dignity, respect, and compassion. Our holistic services and outreach are like a Tzu Chi Dharma Fountain in the community, radiating positivity and care with respect, gratitude, and love.

Debra Boudreaux

Chief Executive Officer
Tzu Chi USA


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