Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics

Northern California

Written by Vivian Chang, Chinfen Hsieh, and Renee Liu
Translated by H.B. Qin

Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic volunteers group photo

Following the 2018 Camp Fire, Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic volunteers travel to Oroville, California, to aid disaster survivors. Photo/Daijia Duan


When most people think of Northern California, their first impression is of Silicon Valley’s technological innovations, or the bustling metropolis of San Francisco. However, that lifestyle may feel worlds away for many local families. According to a California Poverty Measure report — a research effort by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality — poverty in California increased from 11.7% in fall 2021 to 13.2% in the first quarter of 2023.

All but overlooked due to Silicon Valley’s prosperity, the challenges of underprivileged families often go unaddressed. With this, generations of Tzu Chi volunteers have dedicated themselves to serving Northern California’s disadvantaged families with love, respect, and gratitude.

After participating in free clinic activities for some time, Tzu Chi volunteers deeply realized that, although families may receive Medicare and Medicaid and can go to public hospitals in case of emergency, there is a comparative lack of preventive and curative treatment for oral health. Good dental health is vital to people’s lives, as oral diseases can be painful and potentially life-threatening. This is precisely why a Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic was initiated in Northern California.

Volunteers and guests gather for a photo on February 24, 2008, during the inauguration ceremony for the first Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic to serve in Northern California.
Volunteers and guests gather for a photo on February 24, 2008, during the inauguration ceremony for the first Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic to serve in Northern California. Photo/Bryan Yeh

Two Years in the Making

As early as 2003, volunteers in Northern California purchased portable dental units to provide more comprehensive services. Still, due to the cumbersome preparation work, time-consuming assembly, and the fact that it took the volunteers twice the amount of time to connect the electrical wires and the suction system, the effect was not quite satisfactory. And, the equipment was prone to experiencing other problems. 

“The portable dental unit does not produce a favorable effect for consultations; for example, the angle of adjustment between the equipment and the chair is limited, and the light is not bright enough. Moreover, before we had the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic, there was no proper place to store and manage the devices, which not only took time to prepare for each clinic activity but also resulted in the loss of much equipment and waste of expired dental materials,” explained Dr. Chinghsin Wong, a Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) dentist. Dr. Wong has participated in Tzu Chi’s free clinic activities since 2007, and these tricky experiences are indeed memories shared by many volunteers present during that period’s free outreach work.

The opening ceremony of the designated free dental clinic service is held on May 19, 2013.
The opening ceremony of the designated free dental clinic service is held on May 19, 2013. Photo/Tawen Mei

With such considerations, Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region proposed the purchase of a Mobile Clinic in 2004. The Northwest Region held a charity gala dinner at the end of 2004 to raise funds, which won the community’s enthusiastic support and gathered an astounding $400,000 on the day of the event. Subsequently, Tzu Chi’s internal medical volunteer team set up a mobile clinic procurement project team, consisting of dentist Dr. Amy Huang, the project manager, alongside seven dentists, eight dental assistants, and four medical volunteers, who started the intricate procurement process. After countless discussions and more than two years of hard work, the team completed the internal and external equipment selection and, at the end of 2007, accepted delivery of a brand-new Dental Mobile Clinic built to its specifications.  

The Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic is a fully equipped treatment environment, offering much more than portable dental equipment. Inside the vehicle are three patient chairs, three dentist chairs, three treatment stations, cabinets for equipment storage, an A/C unit, a generator, a handheld digital X-ray machine, and various necessary replacement parts. In addition, all the equipment is stored in fixed drawers and cabinets in an organized manner, saving volunteers a lot of prep time and allowing consultations to begin more quickly.

The interior of the new Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic
The interior of the new Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic, which took two years to design, resembles a small dental office with all the necessary equipment. Photo/James Liang

“The Mobile Clinic is a fully-equipped dental clinic office wherever it goes. The vehicle itself is like a living advertisement that raises awareness of Tzu Chi’s medical mission. Compared to the portable dental equipment, this vehicle brings peace of mind to medical staff and patients, and its overall impression is more professional,” Dr. Chinghsin Wong explained.

I can do more for my patients in the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic.

February 24, 2008, saw the inauguration ceremony of the first Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic in Northern California. Jose Esteves, then mayor of Milpitas, presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which community leaders, media, donors, volunteers, and residents were invited to attend. The Mobile Clinic was made possible by the public’s generosity and would benefit the public. 

The Place Where Great Love Passes Through

Most students from the Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose were from underprivileged Hispanic and Vietnamese families, with hard-working parents who needed support to make ends meet. Many children had never been to a dentist, and some did not have a toothbrush.   

After months of coordination and communication, on June 4, 2008, Tzu Chi volunteers drove the Dental Mobile Clinic to Harry Slonaker Academy for the first time, where 100% of the students are eligible for free lunch due to family income level. The Mobile Clinic volunteer team hoped to provide medical care for the children and, at the same time, offer vital oral hygiene education so children could learn how to properly floss and brush their teeth, as preventing cavities is imperative for avoiding getting fillings later.

In addition to school visits, the Mobile Clinic often visited Christian churches in disadvantaged neighborhoods to provide free clinics to congregations needing oral health care. After half a year of preparation and passing the health authority’s inspection, Northwest Region medical volunteers also marked a new milestone in May 2013 as they launched a designated free dental clinic in Milpitas.

When the Mobile Clinic was not in service at other locations and remained parked at the Tzu Chi campus in Milpitas, volunteers used it to conduct free dental clinic services as well. With the addition of designated free clinics, the free dental clinic service was no longer a one-time visit, but allowed underprivileged or uninsured patients to return to the clinic as needed to receive continuous treatment. This flexibility in care helped bring the function of the Mobile Clinic to its fullest effect. Dr. Wong volunteered to take on the role of Dental Director for the designated medical care in Northern California.

The Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic is like a store. With a designated location, we can nurture more interested medical professionals or volunteers. The vehicle is only the hardware; it’s the people that count.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
Northern California

Volunteers and guests take a group photo after the opening ceremony of the designated free dental clinic service.
Volunteers and guests take a group photo after the opening ceremony of the designated free dental clinic service. Photo/Bryan Yeh
Dr. Chinghsin Wong (left) and general affairs volunteer Wenhsien Sun discuss the free clinic service on-site at Harry Slonaker Academy in 2009.
Dr. Chinghsin Wong (left) and general affairs volunteer Wenhsien Sun discuss the free clinic service on-site at Harry Slonaker Academy in 2009. Photo/Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region

More Than Treating the Illness

“I have three children, and my own clinic is very busy, but the Tzu Chi free clinic is my other career and my lifelong commitment,” said Dr. Chinghsin Wong, who participated in the Tzu Chi free clinic for the first time in 2007. When she learned that the Mobile Clinic was in need of a licensed dental professional to assist in its operations, she volunteered to take on the role. With her children to care for as well, she did not travel with the Mobile Clinic. Instead, Dr. Wong closed her clinic on Mondays so that she could dedicate her time and efforts to the Mobile Clinic’s scheduled services.

Through the bi-weekly free dental clinic services, Dr. Wong noticed that many Chinese seniors who did not have dental insurance also needed help with day-to-day tasks. These local seniors got to know Tzu Chi better through the free clinics and subsequently enrolled in the Northwest Region’s courses for older adults, where they could attend classes three times a week to learn about health care and fitness, learn to draw and paint, participate in music lessons, and make friends via group recreation. Tzu Chi volunteers’ warmth and care, coupled with their peers’ interaction and companionship, gradually helped support their body, mind, and spirit. 

Dr. Chinghsin Wong prepares for a free clinic in 2021.
Dr. Chinghsin Wong prepares for a free clinic in 2021. Photo/Kitty Lu

“I have witnessed the transformation of these seniors. The combination of medical care and charity has not only relieved them of their toothaches, but also made them healthier and more energetic,” said Dr. Wong.

The designated free clinic gives disadvantaged seniors in the community access to better care. Tzu Chi helps them live a life with better quality.

“Everyone should have access to quality dental care. Financial status should not be a barrier,” Dr. Wong expressed. Due to the large number of patients needing dental care, Dr. Wong often brought dental devices from her own practice to the free clinics to ensure that each patient was properly cared for. She did not hesitate to provide follow-up treatment at her own clinic for those in need. She also emphasized the training of the Mobile Clinic’s dental assistants (DAs), as they would provide a key element in the quality of care.

Providing guidance for DAs at the free clinic in Northern California was first handled by volunteer Peita Chu, a Silicon Valley engineer who would personally go to the dentist’s office to take pictures of equipment, collect data, and carefully organize everything to serve as training materials. However, the volunteers who came to help as DAs still needed further training from professionals.

“It was very touching to see so many volunteers giving their time to do free clinics, but one may be injured if not operating the medical equipment skillfully. It takes minimal exertion for medical professionals to teach how to use medical equipment properly. So why not do it?” Dr. Wong explained as she started to pass her knowledge on to the volunteers. To her surprise, in addition to training several DAs who met professional standards, several volunteers who had been homemakers initially mastered the skills due to participating in the free clinic and later took professional courses at their own expense to obtain professional licenses.

Dr. Chinghsin Wong (second right) and DA Linda Peng (left) travel to the Camp Fire disaster area in December 2018 to serve survivors. Photo/Tina Tuan

“What we often calculate is the total number of people treated at each free clinic, but that’s not the only thing. I’ve also seen the transformation of the volunteers after their involvement in the free clinics, the warmth between patients and doctors, and the self-confidence the volunteers have gained as a result of learning these skills,” Dr. Wong recounted, having found that the free clinic does far more than treat patients; it uplifts the lives and hearts of volunteers, too. 

Care in the Drift

The free clinic cares for not only people experiencing poverty and schoolchildren from disadvantaged families but also those who have suffered because of natural or man-made disasters. The Kuzhim family from Ukraine is one such family that found support with Tzu Chi.   

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, comedian Vyacheslav “Slava” Kuzhim (hereafter Slava) and his wife, Antonina “Tosha” Kuzhim (hereafter Tosha), were forced to flee their homeland with their two young children, traveling through Romania and Italy to their destination in California to join friends. The once happy and financially stable family had become refugees, without a permanent place of their own to lay their heads, and often unable to make ends meet. 

Because of the war, treatment for Slava’s wisdom teeth had been delayed for months, and his gums began to swell and bleed. Although he was lucky enough to get a Humanitarian Parole, which allowed him to stay in Palo Alto, California, for a while, he was unfamiliar with the area, and his Medi-Cal had not yet been approved. He didn’t know what he should do when it came to medical expenses. With the help of friends, however, he searched online and tried his luck by sending letters to dozens of charitable organizations. Some of the letters gained no response, while others got replies stating that the clinic was full, leaving him in despair. 

“Suddenly, I received a letter from Tzu Chi, saying they were willing to help Slava with his treatment. How wonderful it was,” recalled Tosha with tears in her eyes. After receiving a letter from the family pleading for help, dentist Shirley Chen, from Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters, immediately contacted the Northwest Region team to assist locally. The letter gave the family hope. “Volunteers Michelle Wong and Leslie Hsieh quickly arranged for Slava to go to Dr. Chinghsin Wong’s clinic, where a series of dental treatments were completed. Tzu Chi not only provided us with food and other assistance, but also invited Slava to play Santa Claus in Tzu Chi’s distribution program at Christmas, inviting us to celebrate the holiday together,” Tosha shared.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
Northern California

In October 2022, Dr. Chinghsin Wong kindly eases Vyacheslav Kuzhim’s worries at her clinic before beginning treatment. Photo/Kitty Lu
With his dental procedure complete and his pain finally relieved, Vyacheslav Kuzhim excitedly hugs Dr. Chinghsin Wong, thanking her for all her efforts. Photo/Kitty Lu


After examining Slava, Dr. Wong found that his inflamed wisdom tooth needed extraction due to ulceration, and the tooth next to it was also affected, requiring root canal treatment and crown restoration. Dr. Wong contacted several peers and finally found an oral surgeon who was willing to perform the wisdom tooth extraction free of charge. Then, she completed the rest of the treatment process herself.

The treatment plan following the extraction was lengthy, so Dr. Wong arranged several overtime appointments for Slava on her days off. She completed Slava’s last treatment in the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic on October 24, 2022. After it was over, Slava’s youngest daughter unexpectedly kissed Dr. Wong’s cheek in thanks. “The little girl didn’t speak much English. She had also been through the war and the escape. The child was so shy, but she still wanted to express her gratitude to the medical volunteers who helped her daddy and stopped him from suffering due to tooth pain,” the dentist recalled. Dr. Wong’s initial intention was very simple, or so she thought: She just wanted to help this displaced family and ensure that Slava’s dental health was fully restored. Dr. Wong honestly didn’t expect to receive thanks offered in such a heartfelt way.

A Christian Doctor

Dr. Stephanie Wang is the primary physician in charge of the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic’s free outreach events. Despite living with challenges in mobility due to polio, Dr. Wang has been on the spot almost everywhere the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic goes.

Dr. Wang is a devout Christian, but upon listening to Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s lectures and teachings on Buddhism, she concluded that the Buddhist Dharma is a lot like the Bible, and teaches people to bear great love in their hearts. Dr. Wang also shares concepts she appreciates about Buddhism and ongoing Tzu Chi missions while visiting her church from time to time, hoping to inspire greater interfaith unity and engagement. In 2009, Dr. Wang joined the Northwest Region’s TIMA free clinic team and participated in the Tzu Chi free clinic for the first time. She was moved when she heard the other medical volunteers express sincere gratitude to their patients when their treatment was finished.

“After learning more about Tzu Chi, I realized that this practice comes from the philosophy of giving and being thankful at the same time, being thankful to other people for making our love for others possible, and being thankful to those who are giving together with us,” Wang said. “I was inspired by Tzu Chi’s free clinics and decided to retire early so that I could spend more time helping these patients.”

Stephanie Wang began participating in Tzu Chi’s free clinics before she retired from her own practice. After her retirement, she has continued to give her time and talents to TIMA activities readily. For years, she has renewed her dental license at her own expense, and likewise attends classes at her own expense to obtain credits, all for the purpose of helping with Tzu Chi’s free clinics. 

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
Northern California

Dr. Stephanie Wang (left) in the Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic
Following the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, a medical team teasels to the disaster area to hold a free clinic. Pictured is Dr. Stephanie Wang (left) in the Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic. Photo/Tina Tuan
Stephanie Wang participates in Tzu Chi’s free clinic in Middletown, California, after the 2015 Valley Fire.
Stephanie Wang participates in Tzu Chi’s free clinic in Middletown, California, after the 2015 Valley Fire. Photo/Wenhsien Sun

During the free clinics, Dr. Wang found that people often lost hope in ever attaining the care they needed due to financial considerations, and they lacked long-term treatment options in general. In addition, many people believe that if one’s teeth and gums are without pain, then they don’t need to see a dentist for regular check-ups. However, as with other routine medical visits, dental check-ups and everyday preventative care can help catch problems early, and ensure they do not cause pain down the line. This is especially crucial because when negative symptoms become apparent at a later stage, treatment may be substantially more financially demanding. Yet, Dr. Wang will not give up on any patient easily. 

When we convinced people to regain hope and accept treatment, they always had a smile on their face, and that is the greatest reward for us as doctors.

Observing All Sides and Listening to All Perspectives

Linda Lin, a Tzu Chi volunteer and senior TIMA DA, brings a knowledgeable presence to all Mobile Clinic operations. Since she is very familiar with the wide range of dental equipment available in the vehicle, she is always ready to fill in and assist fellow volunteers – from locating apparatus to replacing a scaler tip, she is there to handle it with a cool head.

“Training volunteers and familiarizing them with the equipment is all part of the process. I need to be considerate, observe all sides, listen to all directions, and provide support to other volunteers to solve problems while helping the dentist,” Lin said.

Lin has been an essential member of the Northwest Region’s medical team since 1995, when the Tzu Chi San Jose Service Center first held a free clinic in The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and has spent nearly 30 years as a medical volunteer. As a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA), she used to work in a private clinic office. After retiring in 2006, she volunteered her time at the Tzu Chi free clinics, serving as the DA team leader for the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic.

In July 2019, volunteers visit the Concow area to offer free dental care after the devastating Camp Fire, and capture a heartfelt photo together.
In July 2019, volunteers visit the Concow area to offer free dental care after the devastating Camp Fire, and capture a heartfelt photo together. Photo/Qiongyu Liao

Years of free clinic experience have made Linda Lin aware that finding volunteers with a professional dental assistant background can be challenging, let alone those who would regularly sacrifice their free time to participate in Tzu Chi events. Yet, DAs are vital to the Mobile Clinic’s operation, and training volunteers to become DAs became one of Lin’s main endeavors.

“Being able to find volunteer assistants who are also willing to take the initiative and actively undergo training helps the doctors a lot,” said Lin. “It’s a big help.”

Lin always preferred to avoid being the center of attention, and was less inclined to give directions amongst others. However, she worked to overcome this sense of unease in the hopes of teaching volunteers to the absolute best of her ability. In time, she became a remarkable team leader, indeed. She works with dentists to organize regular workshops every year, equipping volunteer assistants with the knowledge they need to succeed in their roles. As new people eventually took up the front line, she took a step back to focus on support and coordination.

In June 2022, medical volunteers conduct free dental check-ups for elementary school students in East Palo Alto, California.
In June 2022, medical volunteers conduct free dental check-ups for elementary school students in East Palo Alto, California. Photo/Leslie Hsieh

“For the volunteer assistants to continue to participate, they need to have a sense of mission and responsibility in addition to love, to recognize Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings, and to understand Tzu Chi’s spiritual philosophy,” said Lin. “Only through this way can they do it for a longer period of time.” Lin additionally believes that the intention of participating in free clinics as a DA is a truly good deed that is bound to bring joy. “That kind of feeling is incomparable to going to work and making money. Working in a clinic office may be stressful, and so is volunteering, but to a different degree.”

But no matter what, Linda Lin has upheld the idea that free clinic visits must also meet the high standards of professional medical care. The quality cannot slacken just because it’s free. “Master Cheng Yen said that we should treat the sick as if they were our own family. I take this same mindset when I treat the patients who come to free clinics,” she shared. 

Seeing medically underserved patients walk out of the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic with a smile on their face after the visit gives me comfort and makes me feel that I have truly helped to relieve them of their illness and suffering.

Holding the Steering Wheel of Love

Chenwei Hsu’s connection with Tzu Chi began with the availability of DA.AI TV (Tzu Chi’s TV channel, headquartered in Taiwan and broadcast globally), allowing him to watch DA.AI TV programs locally. Tzu Chi’s message touched his heart and he witnessed its impact on others as well. 

Chenwei Hsu prepares a patient for an X-ray at a free dental event in June 2013.
Chenwei Hsu prepares a patient for an X-ray at a free dental event in June 2013. Photo/Wenhsien Sun

In 2008, the Mobile Clinic was in need of a driver, and Hsu didn’t hesitate to volunteer. He knew the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic had an important mission. Since then, Hsu has been getting up early and going to the Mobile Clinic whenever there is a free clinic in the Northwest Region.

“My duty is to maximize the capacity of everyone’s love so that the Mobile Clinic’s function can be perfectly utilized,” he said. The Mobile Clinic driven by Hsu is multi-functional, integrating examination and treatment to serve the public. In addition to being a driver, Hsu’s duties also include maintaining the Mobile Clinic. “Driving the Mobile Clinic is not the same as driving my own car. I must be cautious for fear that the Mobile Clinic may be damaged. I treasure this Mobile Clinic.” The Mobile Clinic is made possible by donations from people near and far who wish to make a difference in the lives of others. Every time he drives it for a free clinic, he carefully checks whether every drawer and locker on the Mobile Clinic is locked and whether the equipment, such as the treatment chairs, are positioned correctly, for a single issue on the road or a bumpy ride may damage the equipment. 

A remodeler by trade, Hsu is handy with a variety of tools and tasks, and knows how to repair the Mobile Clinic and the free dental clinic equipment. He has been integral to making sure that every detail works just right. Chenwei Hsu has been driving the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic for 15 years, not only serving as the guardian of the Mobile Clinic, but also as a guardian of all living beings who step inside.

Chenwei Hsu (middle), an experienced remodeler by trade, explains how to assemble portable dental equipment.
Chenwei Hsu (middle), an experienced remodeler by trade, explains how to assemble portable dental equipment. Photo/Manpreet Badhan

Sending Love Onward

When he was first invited to participate in a TIMA activity in California in 2015, Jim Toal saw how the medical care professionals who participated in the activity selflessly gave their time and expertise, which deeply impressed him. Although Toal was not a medical care professional, he resolved to contribute his energy to TIMA’s cause as well.

By 2017, Toal had become one of the Mobile Clinic’s main drivers, operating the 38-foot-long coach bus. “After participating in Tzu Chi’s medical activities, I found that doing good deeds with kind people is a lot of fun. I also realized that the most unforgettable thing about the Mobile Clinic’s operation is the teamwork and the sincerity of each volunteer to help others,” Toal shared.

He was most impressed by TIMA’s free clinic activities in Paradise, California, the area hardest hit by the Camp Fire in 2018. The fire tragically destroyed the town and, with it, many people’s cherished homes. As Toal drove the Tzu Chi Mobile Clinic into Paradise, he was pained to see the tombstone-like chimneys amid the rubble.

“On that day, there was construction on the side of the road. There were vehicles on the left and concrete dividers on the right. The Mobile Clinic barely had any room to maneuver through the passage,” recounted Toal. At the moment, he focused his attention on the mission to provide much-needed dental care to the survivors of the wildfire. With this conviction, he eventually navigated the Mobile Clinic to the free clinic’s destination.  

With its fully equipped Tzu Chi Dental Mobile Clinic at the ready, either for designated free clinics or outreach, the Northwest Region’s free clinic team can reach deeper into communities, connect with others, and expand and develop the medical mission even further. The Mobile Clinic is a vehicle that carries not only medical equipment, but the heart of all volunteers who wish to relieve suffering and transform it into joy. It carries compassion as it travels onward to comfort and care for people, bringing health, blessings, and hope wherever it goes.

Tzu Chi USA Mobile Clinics
Northern California

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