Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics

New York

Written by Pinhau Chiou, Tun Lin, Daphne Liu, Qihua Luo, Hong Zhang, and Ida Eva Zielinska

Tzu Chi volunteers and NYPD police officers congratulate Carlisle Ward on his new glasses

Tzu Chi volunteers and NYPD police officers congratulate Carlisle Ward on his new glasses. Photo/Hui Liu


As ten-year-old Carlisle Ward put on his brand-new prescription eyeglasses and looked around the NYPD (New York Police Department) Community Center in Brooklyn, New York, on February 26, 2023, a bright smile appeared on his face. “I didn’t know I was going to get new glasses; I thought they were just going to check my eyes. And now that I have glasses, I can see better and see things clearer,” he declared.

Serendipity Before Christmas

Carlisle’s previous glasses broke a month earlier, and his uncorrected vision interfered with his ability to follow along in class. Thankfully, Carlisle’s mother, Darra Ward, saw a Facebook post from the NYPD Community Center in Brooklyn about Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinic, which led them there. 

I got my glasses in 50 minutes!

“I’m very happy, Thank you very much,” said Darra, who was as thrilled as her son.

Carlisle was the first to get glasses at this Vision Mobile Clinic service event that day. The free clinic, made possible by a serendipitous encounter, provided free vision exams and prescription eyeglasses to 15 care recipients.  

While the Vision Mobile Clinic was serving in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood before Christmas 2022, the volunteers met NYPD officers delivering gifts to underprivileged households in the community. The chance meeting resulted in an invitation to bring the vision care outreach to the NYPD Community Center in Brooklyn.

Detective Alicia Arquer, who was with the NYPD Community Affairs Bureau Outreach Division then, said, “Something like this was never done before, to my knowledge, where you get free glasses on the spot. I definitely want to continue this partnership with Tzu Chi and hope we can go all across the city and provide all these services.” 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams also stopped by. However, his introduction to Tzu Chi dates back to 2016, when Adams was Brooklyn Borough President. At the time, Tzu Chi was formulating a plan to bring the Vision Mobile Clinic program to New York, a goal they eventually discussed with Adams. “He expressed support and was interested,” Freeman Su, Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region’s Executive Director, recounted. And, Tzu Chi intended to follow through on its promise to launch the program within a few years.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
New York

The ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 18, 2019
The ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 18, 2019, marks the start of the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic program in New York. Photo/Daniel Luo
Eric Adams, Mayor of New York City, attends Tzu Chi’s free clinic in Brooklyn on Feb. 26, 2023, and personally experiences the Vision Mobile Clinic’s services.
Eric Adams, Mayor of New York City, attends Tzu Chi’s free clinic in Brooklyn on Feb. 26, 2023, and personally experiences the Vision Mobile Clinic’s services. Photo/Hui Liu


The Vision Mobile Clinic Program Launches in 2019

In March 2019, two brand-new Vision Mobile Clinic units were ready for a coast-to-coast journey across the United States. Five Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region volunteers who had just attended the TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) Global Forum at Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters in San Dimas, California, rotated to drive the more than 2,750-mile distance to New York City.

Established in a memorandum of understanding between Tzu Chi and the New York City government, the plan was to provide vision care services for students through See 2 Succeed, a nonprofit partnership that works alongside schools to offer free eye exams and glasses for children in underserved or underprivileged communities.

The program would begin in public schools in Brooklyn and expand from there, focusing on kindergarten to third-grade students. Kappa V Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was the first school to benefit from this. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic soon cast a dark shadow over the world, locking down nations and cities, including New York. However, the Vision Mobile Clinic team would gradually find other ways to advance their mission. 

Immigrant Brothers

In the Autumn of 2020, Tzu Chi New York launched community volunteer training for conducting vision exams and making prescription eyeglasses. Over three weekends, from October 18 to November 1, Hispanic volunteers came to the Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region Office in Flushing, Queens, for a course designed by optometrist James Chuang, which would enable them later to assist the Vision Mobile Clinic team in the field.

Tzu Chi was offering the training in partnership with Brigada de Esperanza NY. “Our motto is, ‘Immigrant brother, you’re not alone,’” the Founder and CEO of the nonprofit, Justice Carmen Velasquez, explained. “And we think about it, live it, dream about it, and practice it,” she added.

Justice Velasquez, the first Ecuadorian to serve as a judge for the New York State Supreme Court, and previously the Civil Court, first learned about Tzu Chi in 2016, when the Foundation provided disaster relief following the earthquake that struck her native country that year. More recently, through the Brigada de Esperanza NY, she partnered with Tzu Chi to distribute food in Hispanic communities during the pandemic.

Justice Velasquez helped recruit Spanish-speaking volunteers for Tzu Chi’s vision care training, which would expand the scope of their community service. And each of the recruits had their reasons for participating. 

Pia Cardenas, from Ecuador, arrived in the United States as a child, immigrating with her family. After facing many hurdles over the years, she is an accountant with a steady job today. Still, Cardenas remembers the struggles and is eager to help others, especially immigrants. After she saw the Brigada de Esperanza NY collaborating with Tzu Chi to distribute food during the pandemic, she wanted to do her part for the community. When she learned of this training, she signed up. 

I like the feeling of helping others. The good thing about volunteering is that you’re not doing it for your own sake; you can go out and truly help people directly.

Karina Curillo volunteers during Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinic outreach event
Karina Curillo volunteers during Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinic outreach event in New York on November 15, 2020. Photo/Hector Muniente

Karina Curillo, who is Mexican-American, worked diligently to become a certified nursing assistant. She also has a great passion for serving the community and began volunteering with Brigada de Esperanza NY in her spare time. This training presented a new field to explore, and she was thrilled to participate. “We’re in the hands of an excellent team of doctors. I’m very happy, with great expectations,” she concluded. In fact, she and all the other trainees would soon be practicing their new skills.

Hooray in Queens

On November 7 and 15, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic set out to offer free services in New York City’s Queens Borough, focusing on Hispanic neighborhoods. An appointment system was in place, reducing the chances of too many people gathering, and applicants for vision care were required to pass COVID-19 testing before they came.

Cheers erupted regularly from the Vision Mobile Clinic vehicle when a volunteer held up a pair of prescription glasses that the team had just made and then presented to their new owner. At the same time, the vision care recipients shared their sorrows. Eufrocina Antonia Manjarrez divulged, “I haven’t been working, and well, for us who don’t have documents, it’s not easy to obtain help.” Deisy Lugo revealed, “I haven’t had an eye exam in two years. One needs to read something all the time.”

Alicia Degro, a single mother of four, confided, “A pair of glasses costs $300 plus, which is more than my income for a week!” The pandemic had gravely impacted her small restaurant business. She urgently needed a more current prescription for her eyeglasses, but since her insurance doesn’t cover vision care, she couldn’t get help until that day. Wearing her new glasses, she gratefully added, “Since children don’t go to class, one has to help them with their studies. If I don’t have my glasses, I can’t read.” Now, with her new glasses, she could. 

Mavro Quintuna, a construction worker with an unstable income, told the team, “I noticed having problems with my eyesight, but without health insurance, it’s very difficult to get help.” Receiving a free pair of prescription glasses felt like a blessing that would also increase his safety on the job: “I need to have clear vision at work; with these lenses, I can see much better, and the difference is very noticeable.”

Maricel García, wearing her new glasses, exclaimed, “I’m in awe. I called my husband and said, ‘Oh my God, I can see!’” As for the volunteers from Tzu Chi and the Brigada de Esperanza NY, they were equally pleased. Richard Yang, the head of the TIMA New York chapter, said, “Everyone can see clearly now, and they’re so moved and excited. That’s our ultimate goal and mission accomplished.” Justice Velasquez from the Brigada concluded, “This is what we want, for people to be happy. What a joy to see a person say, ‘‘Yes, I can see!”

Two weeks later, García was still in awe. “My life has really taken a big turn,” she declared. “I realized that I was blind. Now I see everything super clear. I don’t want to take them off because I feel the difference from before to now. The faces are clearer, and I can see people at a distance. That gives me peace of mind and security,” García revealed. “It’s been a blessing for me, and I hope other people continue to benefit from it. I’m grateful to the group of doctors and Tzu Chi. To all of them, thank you very much.”

Resuming Regular Vision Care Services

In 2021, the governor of New York announced that the state would fully reopen on June 15. In advance, the Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region began training new community volunteers in April to assist the vision care outreach team. By May, a Vision Mobile Clinic was stationed outside the Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region Office every other week, serving underprivileged or uninsured households and opening up 20 appointments each time. 

The team noted that initially, most of the patients they served were older and seeking prescription reading glasses. “Because of COVID-19, everyone has been at home; no one has been able to get out to get glasses,” optometrist James Chuang noted.

By October 2021, the Vision Mobile Clinic also resumed its program in schools, outreach that had been the first goal. On October 20, the vision care team served students at Walter Francis Bishop Elementary School in Brooklyn. Eighteen students had their vision screened, and it turned out that 13 needed glasses, which they got within an hour.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
New York

With the gradual reopening of New York City in 2021, the Vision Mobile Clinic team in New York begins serving the community anew. Photo/Daphne Liu
Walter Francis Bishop Elementary School students in Brooklyn undergo vision tests. Photo/Pinhau Chiou


The school’s principal, Tiffany Hicks, was thrilled, exclaiming, “This can help those students with poor eyesight because they can’t read learning materials, which makes them struggle.” And yet, perhaps the most thankful were the children who got glasses. Ariana, a third-grade student, excitedly remarked, “I can see better! I don’t have to go up to the board; I can see from my desk easily.”

For these students, benefiting from corrected vision with free glasses will undoubtedly impact their performance in school and confidence. However, one could also say that they will finally be able to see the world around them in clear focus, an equally wonderful thing. Dr. Richard Yang, the head of the TIMA New York chapter, concluded, “We’ll continue. If a school will have us, we’ll help students with the work of providing glasses.” And this is what the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic team in New York has been doing until now.

Tzu Chi USA’s Twelfth Mobile Clinic

In 2023, Tzu Chi USA and its Northeast Region marked a medical care milestone since Tzu Chi’s 12th mobile clinic entered service, arriving in New York on November 29. This mobile clinic is equipped for dentistry, thus launching dental care outreach in the New York Metropolitan area. 

A donation from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation (MCHF) to Tzu Chi USA made this possible. MCHF’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to provide grants to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable New Yorkers, bolster the health outcomes of diverse communities, eliminate barriers to care, and bridge gaps in health services.” Thanks to this gift, New Yorkers in need will be blessed with Tzu Chi’s free dental care outreach going forward.

While Tzu Chi applied for vehicle registration for the new Dental Mobile Clinic, New York volunteers took the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the vehicle’s medical equipment, which everyone expected to be operational in the first quarter of January 2024. Meanwhile, the existing Vision Mobile Clinic units would continue to operate every other week in 2024, translating to about 26 free clinics a year, serving schoolchildren and undocumented immigrants in need of support.

Since their first outreach in 2019, New York’s Vision Mobile Clinic units have served a dozen to several dozen disadvantaged residents at each free clinic event. Over the past four years, volunteers have responded with medical expertise and love to thousands of patients who came to seek help. The number of people served by Tzu Chi is getting increasingly bigger, and each of them is an individual human being who can see the world in focus through the new glasses provided by the volunteers. And now, beginning in 2024, thousands more patients will be free from the suffering of toothaches and able to smile freely, thanks to the services of the Tzu Chi USA Northeast Region’s new Dental Mobile Clinic.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
New York

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