International Medical Outreach


Written by Audrey Cheng and Scarlett Liu 
Translated by H.B. Qin

Tzu Chi volunteers comfort the little girl with candies

Following the earthquake that struck Mexico in September 2017, Tzu Chi volunteers comfort children with sweets during Tzu Chi’s first large-scale disaster relief distribution on December 7 in Tláhuac. Photo/Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters


On September 19, 2017, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale hit the state of Puebla in Central Mexico, causing heavy harm. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed, countless people were injured, and over 300 tragically lost their lives. Moreover, as the earthquake disrupted livelihood activities, residents were economically affected, too, which caused even more suffering.

Ay, ay, ay, ay. Sing out and don’t cry. As singing gladdens our sad hearts…

For those impacted, Tzu Chi’s assistance in the disaster’s aftermath might have felt as uplifting as the lyrics of the Mexican folk song Cielito Lindo. Tzu Chi and local volunteers joined forces to write a heartening page in history by delivering aid to those most in need and bringing the seeds of hope and love into this rich land to take root.

Chinese medicine practitioner Gao Zhongcheng (first from left) performs acupuncture on an old woman
At a free clinic on December 7, 2017, Chungchen Kao, a Tzu Chi International Medical Association physician, treats a grandmother over 80 with acupuncture. Photo/Huizhen Zhuang

Embracing the Challenge

“I was on the second floor, and my two children were watching TV in their room. I rushed to their room after hearing a creaking sound. I held them in my arms and protected myself, waiting for the worst to happen. The walls began to collapse, falling piece by piece into ruins.” In city after city, hundreds of Mexicans lost their homes, loved ones, and even their lives as the earth shook without warning, leaving them with no chance of escape.

Learning about the calamity, Tzu Chi volunteers mobilized to launch an aid mission. Stephen Huang, Executive Director of Tzu Chi Global Volunteers, led a disaster assessment team that arrived in Mexico on September 25, 2017, for a two-month-long survey of damages in impacted regions. From Jojutla, near the earthquake’s epicenter, the volunteers traveled around the clock to the five hardest-hit areas of San Gregorio, Atencingo, Cuautla, Raboso, and Xochimilco.

The volunteers went door-to-door, hoping to determine the survivors’ most urgent needs. They found that, apart from the necessity for financial assistance and relief supplies, a shortage of medical resources was equally a pressing issue. Although the local government had deployed medical vehicles to the scene, the shortage of medical supplies and the paralyzed power system put a red light on much of the aid work. Moreover, there wasn’t even any water in some places. In such harsh conditions, public hygiene was difficult to maintain.

There is no water, no way even to wash your hands, and no way to refrigerate the food and medicine you bring in from outside. We desperately need help, especially medical support.

Tzu Chi international medical outreach team under a Mexican flag
On December 13, 2017, during the opening ceremony for Tzu Chi's disaster relief and medical mission in Jojutla, which would provide large-scale aid distributions and free clinics, the Tzu Chi team stands in respect as the Mexican national anthem plays under the nation's flag. Photo/Xiaozhe Huang

Unhealed Wounds

With the support of Han Huang, then-CEO of Tzu Chi USA, volunteer Martin Kuo led the U.S. aid mission. Over 100 doctors and volunteers from 13 countries and regions launched the first disaster relief distributions and free clinic activities in Tláhuac on December 7. By December 15, Tzu Chi’s footprints had reached the cities of San Gregorio, Xochimilco, Jojutla, Tlaquiltenango, and Zacatepec. 

While there was much to do to revive Mexico after the earthquake, the already underprivileged population also had difficulty getting medical care, as did the injured, who required timely treatment. The free clinic team’s arrival brought survivors the first opportunity to obtain professional medical attention since the catastrophe. “When we arrived here, we found that most people had injuries to their shoulders or ankles from falling debris, which they had endured for months,” Dr. Yingxu Ruan from Taiwan reported.

The people were already poor before the disaster, and after the earthquake, they didn’t even have money to buy food. Today’s free clinic is very important. The survivors’ headaches and muscle pains, and their psychological sufferings can finally be relieved.

Tzu Chi provided Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and dental services, with hundreds of local survivors attended to daily. The healthcare team treated 4,491 patients over eight consecutive free clinics.

At that time, Tzu Chi, a charitable organization from the East, was still unfamiliar to many care recipients in Mexico. However, upon receiving Tzu Chi’s professional healthcare treatments and patient services, the disaster survivors, who were physically and mentally traumatized by what they had experienced and its aftermath, were touched and impressed. 

Alma Rosa Calderon, who lost her son and mother in the earthquake, was in deep sorrow and psychological distress. She had suffered physically as well, sharing, “My whole body is covered in scars, and my eyesight and hearing have been affected.” Still, Calderon found solace and relief after gathering the courage to come to a Tzu Chi free clinic, saying, “Tzu Chi truly helped me a lot. I was indeed too afraid to come before, but now I’m not afraid at all.”

In addition to the doctors attending to people’s medical needs, Tzu Chi volunteers took on the tasks of clinic preparations, giving directions, assistance at various service stations, and more. Considering patients’ possible anxiety while awaiting medical treatment, the volunteers prepared songs, dances, and sign language performances to entertain and calm them. They also shared the Tzu Chi bamboo bank story to encourage people to open their hearts and help others, motivating them to move from post-disaster suffering to renewed hope for the future.

Internal Medical Outreach
Tzu Chi and Tzu Chi International Medical Association volunteers provide medical services at free clinics held from August 31 to September 6, 2018, in areas impacted by the 2017 earthquake in Mexico. Photo/Shuli Lo

I’ve participated in many free clinics. The most satisfying moment is to see patients leave with a smile on their faces. That means we did it, we accomplished our mission and merited it.

Taking Root

“What else can we do for you?” Upon the conclusion of the first wave of large-scale distributions and free clinics in December 2017, Tzu Chi began to focus on mid and long-term care for Mexico, which signified that the voices of countless local people had reached the ears and hearts of Tzu Chi volunteers, expressing that what they needed the most after the earthquake was continuous, effective, and professional medical attention.

The U.S. medical team presented the Mexican people’s needs to Master Cheng Yen. Through the joint efforts of Han Huang, then-CEO of Tzu Chi USA, and William Keh, then-CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, the Tzu Chi Foundation resolved to hold quarterly free clinics in Mexico. Subsequently, Tzu Chi USA’s medical team traveled to the Coyoacan community of Mexico City on January 13, 2018, to host a two-day aid distribution and free clinic that treated 513 patients.

Tzu Chi has since been fulfilling its commitment to the Mexican people with solid steps. The team traveled to Mexico six times after January 2018, in April, September, and November that year, plus April, August, and November 2019, organizing several free clinics in Jojutla, Xochimilco, Mexico City, and Tlaquiltenango. By the end of 2019, Tzu Chi’s medical team had organized 36 medical outreach events during its eight cross-country trips, and the number of patients served was as high as 24,415.

“These people need far more help than we can provide in the short term. How I wish I could stay here forever, but I know that’s not possible,” Tzu Chi USA volunteer Paul Sanquesa said at the end of this phase in the Mexico medical mission, saddened to say goodbye after seeing the massive and long-term medical needs of the population in the areas Tzu Chi had served. And yet, this would not be the end of Tzu Chi’s medical relief activities in the country.

Rooted in the maxim that “It’s better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish,” while Tzu Chi continued to input financial support and medical resources in Mexico, it vigorously built and developed local medical teams simultaneously. The evolving mission organized several medical volunteer training sessions over two years and recruited healthcare workers to ensure that they could meet the daily medical needs of the local people.

It doesn’t matter how many free clinics the U.S. team can organize; the volunteer team must invite local healthcare workers and encourage local doctors by setting an example. If moved, they will naturally be willing to take on free clinics and gradually attain self-sufficiency.

Its unceasing care and dedication made the name Tzu Chi take root in Mexico, with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation becoming the local people’s most trusted charity organization, with their consensus about its volunteers being: “They keep their word and do what they say they will do.” 

The trust and touching feeling associated with Tzu Chi connects it to people’s hearts, creating ripples of love and goodness. Many local volunteers and medical professionals joined Tzu Chi’s aid efforts in Mexico, marking another highlight in the history of Tzu Chi’s medical mission in this country. Cheers and tears were always present at each free clinic venue, revealing how Tzu Chi’s spirit had moved the local healthcare staff and people, motivating them to participate in Tzu Chi’s charity efforts.

They did a great job at that time. The local volunteers were extremely enthusiastic, and everyone did their best to streamline all the processes so that Tzu Chi doctors could work with peace of mind when they arrived. The mission deeply moved even the local government, which cooperated fully with Tzu Chi’s work. Those were glorious days.

Alejandra Rodriguez Cuevas, one of the Mexicans glad to help in Tzu Chi’s mission, explained, “I’m so glad to be able to make my contribution here, to be one of you, and to help you so that you can help more people in need. Why? Because this is my country, and they’re my fellow countrymen; we’re not separate.” Rodriguez Cuevas, who harvested her positive energy by helping others, truly has love deeply imprinted at heart. “Seeing all the help you bring to us, it’s really surprising and touching, and the goodness that I realize in giving fulfills my soul,” she said.

Guarding Health in Tijuana

In early 2020, the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Tzu Chi’s free clinic outreach in Mexico, but the path of goodness never stopped. In Tijuana, a group of guardians of the disadvantaged and sick have been passing on Tzu Chi’s love and care for 28 years, healing and aiding the local population.

In 1995, Ah Mui Manguy, a Spanish-speaking volunteer who had settled in Tijuana, accepted the invitation of Stephen Huang, then Executive Director of the U.S. Branch of Tzu Chi (now Tzu Chi USA), to learn more about the local situation, and was shocked by the backwardness of healthcare resources. Beginning in December of that year, a medical team from the Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, California, began traveling to Tijuana regularly to provide free clinics on a long-term basis, bringing valuable medical opportunities to the city’s residents.

In April 1997, Tzu Chi provided a free clinic offering Western medicine and dental care at Escuela Primaria Tijuana Tzu Chi (Tzu Chi Tijuana Elementary School, established in November 1996). The school, located in Tijuana’s La Morita neighborhood, also serves as a community center for nearly 500 children and residents. 

Teresa giving patient dental treatment
Tzu Chi attracts the participation of Martha Lucero (left), a compassionate Mexican-American dentist who leads her own medical team to conduct free clinics at Tzu Chi’s medical campus in Tijuana every Saturday. Photo/Shuli Lo

Beginning from that first outreach in 1997, Tzu Chi USA volunteers traveled across the U.S.-Mexico border to conduct aid distributions and free clinics at the school until 2015. Then, Teresa, a generous Mexican touched by the good deeds of Ah Mui Manguy and Joe Wang, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor, donated a piece of land in Tijuana, hoping Tzu Chi would use it for the benefit of the local people. 

Manguy and Wang did not fail to meet Teresa’s expectations and oversaw the construction of a Tzu Chi medical campus that reached completion in 2018. Subsequently, Tzu Chi USA volunteers and caring local healthcare professionals began to provide medical treatment, medication, and regular food distributions to help Tijuana residents in need near the campus.

In 2011, after retiring from his job as a TCM doctor, Wang, who had been living in Los Angeles, joined forces with Manguy to provide medical, financial, and food assistance to the underprivileged in Tijuana. He traveled over six hours weekly between Los Angeles and Tijuana for many years. Wang also lived in Tijuana three to four days a week to provide free TCM treatments to those in need and train local volunteers to work with Tzu Chi and serve the community.

I was born with a natural love of seeing others happy and helping to relieve their pain. After coming into contact with Tzu Chi, I was inspired to go to Mexico a few times and felt that the people there were suffering too much, so I intended to continue going there to do good deeds and spread compassion.

For more than a decade, Joe Wang and Ah Mui Manguy have been working hard in Tijuana, providing: Care in homes for elderly residents, shelters for those experiencing homelessness, and villages for people with AIDS; Scholarships to help students complete their studies; and medical grants enabling patients to receive proper treatment and recover as soon as possible.

As far as the eye can see, there is still a long way to go for Mexico to break free from poverty. May this vast land be filled with blessings as Tzu Chi continues to plow deeper and work harder to turn suffering around and bring hope.

International Medical Outreach

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