TIMA USA Northwest

Part 4

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

On September 27, 2009, people line up in an orderly fashion to enter the TIMA Sacramento free clinic in Woodland. Photo/Nancy Ku


TIMA Sacramento

Tzu Chi USA’s Sacramento Service Center was established in 2002. Three years later, TIMA Sacramento was officially established in August 2005 amidst many blessings and boundless joy.

Right after its establishment, TIMA Sacramento was mainly engaged in two aspects of medical activities under the leadership of Joyce Lee, the convener. Local volunteers worked tirelessly to support the free clinic activities in other districts long before the establishment of TIMA, such as in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas near Ukiah and in Fresno. What’s more, medical lectures on various topics were held to popularize medical knowledge for the local community.

With their accumulation of medical service experience and a growing team, the time was ripe for TIMA Sacramento’s first free clinic event, which was held in Woodland, 15 miles northwest of Sacramento, on September 27, 2009. The TIMA chapters of neighboring cities supported the activity, and the TIMA Fresno team provided all the free clinic equipment. On the day of the event, there was a huge crowd of people waiting outside the free clinic venue, even before the sun came up.

On September 27, 2009, TIMA Sacramento holds its first free clinic with a U.S.-Mexico Binational Health Week. Pictured is Dr. Richard Russ tending to patients. Photo/Nancy Ku

The free clinic primarily served low-income families, providing a variety of medical services such as dentistry, Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and acupuncture. During the long wait for dental services, volunteers offered haircuts with the help of a local professional stylist. After coming out of the free clinic, the patients felt healthier and more refreshed.

In 2011 and 2012, the Northwest Region and Remote Area Medical worked together for two consecutive years and organized a free clinic in Sacramento, which was a four-day activity benefiting over 1,000 people at Cal Expo in Sacramento.

On its own, TIMA Sacramento has held a large-scale free clinic almost every year since the first one in 2009. However, 2017 saw a change in the free clinic’s focus. As the California government extended its arms to accept international refugees on humanitarian grounds, a large number of refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Ukraine arrived in the United States. In response to the influx of newly arrived families in Sacramento, TIMA partnered with Yolo County Children’s Alliance, Holy Cross, and the Highlands Community Charter and Technical School to conduct free clinics in 2017, 2019, and 2022 to serve local refugees with dental, vision, Western medicine, and TCM services. Highlands Community Charter and Technical School additionally provided translators to facilitate the communication of patients who speak different languages.

On September 27, 2009, the dental clinic event requires the mobilization of many volunteers and a lot of dentistry equipment. Photo/Nancy Ku

A Joyful Ticket

Although TIMA Sacramento did not hold large-scale free medical service events during the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and volunteers were not idle, and even now, continue providing Personal Protective Equipment to many hospitals in the community, such as Sutter Medical Center, UC Davis Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, Mercy Hospital of Folsom, the Sacramento VA Medical Center, skilled nursing facilities, and the general public.

TIMA Sacramento resumed its large-scale free clinic in 2022. As the pandemic had not yet wholly dissipated, everyone entering the free clinic had their temperature measured and was required to take a COVID-19 test to protect patients and volunteers. Also, unlike at previous large-scale events, the free clinic served patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. TIMA Sacramento’s large-scale free clinic events since 2022 have shifted to appointment-based ones because more and more patients were waiting to be seen after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 Organizing free clinics also brought forth many challenges, with one of the biggest being finding doctors willing to participate. When inviting local doctors to partake in volunteer-driven events like these, TIMA Sacramento volunteers would search through Yellow Pages phone books or the internet to find out what hospitals were near the address where they want to hold the event, and then go directly to visit them. Of course, rejection was not uncommon.

There was one experience, however, that Nancy Ku knew would be unforgettable. “One day, I walked into a dentist’s office to recruit doctors. The receptionist was very kind when hearing that I wanted to invite doctors to participate in community service. The doctor came out just as he had finished his consultation, so I asked him if he was willing to participate in the free clinic, and he said yes, which was amazing! Unbelievably, I went to visit another dentist in the community on the same day, and he also said yes! I was even happier! It was a great day. I was so happy that I missed the building for the third dentist’s clinic and was stopped by a police officer at an intersection when I was trying to take a U-turn. ‘Didn’t you see that you are not allowed to take a U-turn here?’ the officer said. The ticket was my first in over 30 years driving in the U.S., but I wasn’t upset at all, because I was really that happy.”

In recent years, with the help of Sam Luong, a parent and dental scaling technician, TIMA Sacramento has recruited more dentists willing to participate in the free clinic, and TIMA’s team of doctors is getting bigger and bigger. Photo/Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region

TIMA San Francisco

Tzu Chi has a profound connection with the people of San Francisco’s Chinatown. On December 13, 1994, Tzu Chi volunteers organized the inaugural ceremony of the San Francisco Service Center at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown. The first office of the Service Center was also located on Powell Street in Chinatown. Over the past 29 years, Tzu Chi volunteers have reached out to the Chinatown community, distributing food on a weekly basis for 12 years, and the total food distributed has amounted to 3.5 million pounds of food, benefiting nearly 100,000 families.

Serving Low Income Communities

TIMA San Franscisco began when William Keh, then director of the Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, California, came to the Northwest Region for TIMA promotion. Seeing the establishment of TIMA San Jose, Shirley Chen, then Director of the San Francisco Branch, was very excited, and encouraged San Francisco volunteers to further the medical mission.

Taking the encouragement to heart, in 2004, San Francisco Branch and professional medical volunteers established the 17th TIMA chapter in the United States.

On November 11, 2000, San Francisco Service Center organized the Tzu Chi Health Fair in Oakland. Photo/Courtesy of TIMA San Franscisco

However, the medical mission in San Francisco was already active, as the volunteer team had organized a Tzu Chi Health Fair in the city long before TIMA San Francisco came into being. Before Thanksgiving in 2000, the Northwest Region and the San Francisco Service Center held the Tzu Chi Health Fair for the first time in San Francisco’s Chinatown and in Oakland on November 11 and November 19, providing free health consultations to the community. Tzu Chi volunteers held a fundraising walk in Golden Gate Park on October 14 to raise money for these two events, which many organizations and doctors supported.

The free clinic in San Francisco was set up in the sports field and gym of the Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, the largest elementary school in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This vibrant community is also home to families living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences. The SRO units are ten or even 20 small rooms separated from a floor’s living spaces. Each unit is less than 40 square feet in size, and the rent is one-fifth to one-tenth of the average rent. There are many students from SRO families at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School. Tzu Chi USA’s San Francisco Branch has been conducting weekly food distributions at the elementary school for a long time.

Other sponsors of health counseling include the Chinese Community Health Care Association (CCHCA) and Chinese Hospital. CCHCA provided Tzu Chi’s free clinic with valuable osteoporosis testing equipment and invited its cardiologists, obstetricians, gynecologists, and podiatrists to participate in the free clinic, thus expanding the range of medical services.

At the Tzu Chi Health Fair in Oakland, the Head Start Program – a U.S. government program that helps low-income families and parents of young children by providing early learning, health, and nutritional services, and has a three-year philanthropic partnership with the San Francisco Service Center – participated in the event. The organization also invited other local social service organizations, and provided more than a dozen medical-related booths at the venue. TCM doctor Lichun Ou’s services had the highest community interest, with a four-page waiting list for consultation and massage.

Although the Tzu Chi Health Fair was paused in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it continued to provide flu shots as needed. The Tzu Chi Health Fair resumed in 2022 in the Alice Griffith community in San Francisco’s Bayview area and in Chinatown in 2023. Over the years, TIMA has often been invited by other organizations to participate in large-scale community events, providing free medical consultations and dental services at the venue.

On February 18, 2023, the Tzu Chi San Francisco Branch and the Chinese Culture Center cosponsor a Tzu Chi Health Fair event for the first time, featuring family medicine, TCM, spinal rehab, and blood glucose screening. Pictured is a TCM doctor consulting with the public in a Tzu Chi eco-tent. Photo/Lulu Yin

Free Clinic Activities Meet the Happy Campus Program

In the beginning, TIMA San Francisco was primarily engaged in offering medical lectures in its office. As more people came for consultation, activities involving medical services were initiated, mobilizing more doctors and related professionals to come and support, or to provide medical-related information. Dentist Ronald Eng’s wife works in the San Francisco Public Health Department. Through her, TIMA began collaborating with the City and County of San Francisco to provide dental and family medicine counseling to residents.

On January 24, 2016, TIMA San Francisco partners with the UCSF Department of Dentistry to provide free dental services and dental health education to Tzu Chi Academy students in San Francisco. TIMA dentist David Lee is pictured second left. Photo/Yuaner Wu

When TIMA held a dental consultation at Tzu Chi Academy in San Francisco, the school’s 200–300 students received dental screenings, and community residents brought their children for help.

We mainly serve new immigrants who don’t have medical insurance and have language barriers. When they bring their children for counseling, we teach them Jing Si Aphorisms, help them as translators, and teach Chinese-speaking children English and English-speaking children Chinese. In fact, we started with teaching Jing Si Aphorisms, and then we got involved in medical services.

Helping a child is helping a family. In addition to dental counseling activities in Tzu Chi Academy, TIMA San Francisco also provided medical care at schools through Tzu Chi’s Happy Campus Program.

The Bayview–Hunters Point community is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of San Francisco, with crime rates 161% higher compared to the national average as of 2018. Many schoolchildren come from low-income families, while others live without a fixed living space with their parents. 

Beginning in 2006, Tzu Chi volunteers rolled out the Happy Campus Program in Bayview–Hunters Point to help students from underrepresented households. The first time the volunteers went to John Muir Elementary School to distribute groceries, they were shocked and saddened to see children who were so hungry that they grabbed uncooked rice and ate it on the spot. An eight-year-old told the volunteers that his future ambition was to be a “robber” so that he could buy toys for his sister and a car to take his family to the doctor. 

During the Happy Campus Program’s distribution, the San Francisco Branch saw that children also needed medical help, especially from the dental clinic. Therefore, the program was expanded, and medical volunteers went to the Alice Griffith Community to provide free dental services to local low-income families. Dentists would see the children and teach them oral hygiene, helping them maintain healthy teeth.

TIMA San Francisco and the University of California’s San Francisco Parnassus Campus School of Dentistry jointly held a dental care event on January 24, 2016, providing free dental services and dental health education to Tzu Chi Academy students in San Francisco. On April 30, the Happy Campus Program team planned dental checkups and fluoride treatments at Belle Haven Elementary School in East Palo Alto for students from low-income families and parents without dental insurance. TIMA San Jose and TIMA San Francisco worked with UCSF School of Dentistry students to make this dental service possible. 

These dental services were paused when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States.


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