TIMA USA Northwest

Part 3

Written by Vivian Chang, Jennifer Chien, Karen Hsiang, Janet Li, Jessie Lin, Renee Liu, Kitty Lu, and Sherry Shih
Edited by Yingying Lee

Combining the efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers from Northern, Central, and Southern California, Tzu Chi USA holds its first free medical event in Fresno in 2001, while providing free haircutting and second-hand clothing donations. Photo/Tzu Chi USA


TIMA Fresno

While TIMA Fresno was officially established on April 26, 2003, it had been providing free medical resources to local farmworker families long before that.

Tzu Chi’s free medical activities in Central California started in Fresno and then expanded to include other agricultural towns. Over the past 20 years, it has encountered many remarkable stories during medical and charitable relief since 1994.

Lighting the Way Onward

When Yuanling Cho returned to Taiwan to visit her father, who had received a Japanese education and had a strong character, she’d seen him in tears reading an article about Dharma Master Cheng Yen. And so, she read the article out of curiosity. Deeply moved, Cho vowed to become “Fresno’s first seed of Tzu Chi.” 

On January 15, 1994, Yuanling Cho, the first director of Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Service Center, hosted an inaugural tea gathering to promote Tzu Chi’s missions in Central California’s agricultural communities. In 2000, Yuanling Cho and Grace Yang, the then director of the Fresno Service Center, traveled to Bakersfield to participate in Tzu Chi’s free medical activities three times to observe the process. They actively sought support from the Tzu Chi USA Chapter (now Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters), to start a free clinic program in Fresno.

Finally, the city of Fresno held its first large-scale free clinic, serving 1,000 patients on-site on August 19, 2001.

Grace Yang recalled the origins of the free clinic activities, saying, “I knew of a lot of doctors because of my work, so I started the first free clinic in 2001, which is the year after I joined Tzu Chi. I’m very thankful that all the volunteers from Northern and Southern California came to support the program, and more than 300 people came on that day.”

The Fresno volunteer team set up the first Tzu Chi office on November 2, 2002, and actively carried out the free clinic program, gaining the support of many local doctors.

Olivia Chung (middle), Tzu Chi USA’s Mobile Health Care Manager and the Manager of TIMA Fresno, has been continuously involved in Tzu Chi’s free clinic program in Central California for two decades. Photo/Jiehyun Liu

With this first-time experience under their belts, Fresno volunteers organized a large-scale free clinic in May 2002 in collaboration with the Tzu Chi free clinic in Alhambra, California, and the Kerman Health Center, serving more than 1,000 people. With the sponsorship of Kaiser Permanente, another free medical event was held in August 2002, serving more than 1,000 people.

“This collaboration had a far-reaching impact. Kaiser Permanente recognized the enthusiasm and efficiency of the Tzu Chi team and has since become one of the key partners in Tzu Chi’s free clinic activities. During the free clinic, we also met Maika Yang and Gold Yang, sisters from the Hmong community, and Maika Yang offered advice to the then budding medical service program,” recalled Yuenling Cho.

Maika Yang was working for Stone Soup Fresno, a nonprofit organization that assists refugee children and families, as well as more families in need of support in Fresno County. Thus, she had a deep connection with the community and related experience. When she learned that the Fresno team wanted to expand the free clinic but was worried about funding, she suggested they apply for sponsorship from organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, like a candle showing the way forward. Later, both sisters became Tzu Chi volunteers.

“We started from scratch, and many of the volunteers offered valuable advice. Kaiser Permanente knew that the Tzu Chi team was capable of organizing free clinics and could make greater use of its limited budget, so it has been supporting Fresno’s free clinic activities,” Olivia Chung, who has been in charge of the Fresno medical team since 2003 and is currently the Manager of TIMA Fresno, explained. While the volunteer team started from scratch, with diligence, effort, and partner collaboration, it actualized Tzu Chi USA’s goal of focusing on medical services in Fresno.

925 TIMA Members

After the official launch of TIMA Fresno in April 2003, it began supporting Tzu Chi’s large free clinics throughout the Central California region.

“Due to geographic proximity, volunteers from Fresno and its neighboring cities of Merced, Modesto, Stockton, and Sacramento have upheld an excellent relationship with each other and support each other,” Olivia Chung said. “Due to security concerns, all volunteers who assist the Fresno free clinic are required to fill out a TIMA form. As of 2023, there are 925 volunteers listed, of which 332 are healthcare professionals, and 60 are active healthcare professionals who are in regular contact and willing to come to the clinic to serve.”

The high percentage of active professional healthcare volunteers in Fresno is not only due to the high number of free clinic activities, but also means that the healthcare professionals recognize the efforts of the Tzu Chi team.

Central California is an important agricultural area in the state where many early Chinese immigrants worked as farmers. At the time, Stockton was the third largest California town populated by Chinese immigrants, after San Francisco and Sacramento. Initially, Chinese farmers were working hard to cultivate and improve the production of the oranges that originated in China here in this new land. However, by the time Tzu Chi volunteers came here, many Chinese immigrant families had moved elsewhere, and most agricultural workers thereafter were Hispanic. Many had no fixed abode or legal status, and their health was affected by the long hours of labor and chemical fertilizers, yet most didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Tzu Chi’s free clinic activities have become their beacon of hope for healing.

“Although there aren’t that many Tzu Chi volunteers in Fresno, we have many TIMA volunteers, and they’re very active. Most of them are from hospitals, clinics, or college students,” Olivia Chung said. “An appraisal is required for nurses in hospitals such as Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno Medical Center every once in a while, and the appraisal includes the number of hours of community service. As such, many of them would come to Tzu Chi’s free clinic activities on their own initiative, dedicating their expertise and time,” she explained. Chung is thankful for the participation of professional volunteers, and tries her best to work with them when organizing free clinics. “For example, we started the Healthy Fresno program in 2013, which was originally a large-scale free clinic activity held once a year for two consecutive days. But according to the volunteers, it is difficult for them to come out for two days in a row. So, we changed the program to every six months and chose a Saturday to make it easier for healthcare volunteers to participate, thus achieving the goal of mutual cooperation,” she reported.

The medical care at free clinics also led to charity care initiatives in some cases. After patients received consultations, the volunteers would introduce Tzu Chi and its missions, and through these interactions, they could identify families in need of charity care support.

Chung recalled several such cases: “Nasaria Olivera, a single mother, was abandoned by her husband and raised nine children on her own. Julia Flores is another; she is a farmworker with seven children. Both of them came to know Tzu Chi through the free clinic.”

Nasaria Olivera and Julia Flores

Nasaria Olivera immigrated to the U.S. in 2004, and her husband had been missing for a long time. Without a job, she struggled to raise her nine children. At one point, when she was unable to respond to school notices to provide doctor’s reports for vaccinations or paperwork for food pickups, the school notified the Social Services Department, and she was deemed as an irresponsible parent, which resulted in the children being placed into foster care by the Department. “In 2018, when she brought her four children to the school, a Tzu Chi free vision care event for check-ups and prescription glasses fitting was going on, and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. I took the initiative to go over and talk to her, realizing that she and her children were in great need of help. After I inquired with the school to find out more about the situation, the family was referred to the charity team as a family in need of care,” Olivia Chung reflected.

Fresno volunteers began by cleaning Nasaria’s small mobile home, and then arranged for a pediatrician and a family doctor to visit the family during monthly home visits to check on the family’s health, confirm vaccinations, and arrange for them to see a dentist. “We continued to accompany Nasaria until her two older children had jobs. She also found a job, and the family settled before stopping the financial and material support,” shared Chung. Looking back, Olivia Chung smiled, saying, “Nasaria also brought her children to Tzu Chi this year for eyeglasses and dental appointments, and when her family is in need, she thinks of Tzu Chi.”

Julia Flores came to Tzu Chi’s free clinic in 2017 with her children. Volunteers noticed this hardworking mom with multiple children, and with her and her husband’s permission, the Tzu Chi USA video team documented the family’s experiences on film. After the film was edited, the volunteers happily contacted them through the local church so they could come and watch the film. The nuns replied that Julia’s husband had suffered a stroke and passed away, and the landlord asked that Julia and her children move out of their trailer home, making their lives very difficult.

“Tzu Chi volunteers immediately started a charity care program to help them find a new rental home, subsidized the rent, and assisted them in moving and obtaining used furniture until the family was stabilized,” Chung recounted. “Julia found a new job with staff accommodation in May 2020, and her eldest son has grown to an adult and found a job to support his family. The family’s financial situation has improved a lot. So, when we went to assist her with her move, she smiled and told us that she no longer needed the family subsidy,” Chung said, smiling once more as she shared the hopeful outcome of the story, and her joy for the family was unmistakable.

The Julia Flores case also gave the volunteers more food for thought. “Julia’s husband didn’t come to the free clinic for a medical check-up and later died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Learning from this experience, we have since paid extra attention to the physical condition of the whole family in care recipient cases, and have taken the initiative to arrange for doctors to make home visits to help parents continue to take care of their families,” said Steven Voon, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation.

TIMA Northwest

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