On January 12, Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake that has crippled the entire nation. Countries around the world have rushed to send rescue workers and aid to help the people of Haiti. Among the humanitarian workers, in their distinctive white and navy blue outfits, you will see Taiwan’s Buddhist Tzu Chi volunteers. As one of the world’s biggest volunteer-based organizations with many seasoned disaster volunteers, you can be sure that they have already mobilized to collect funds to supply necessities to the victims of this latest natural disaster. And, when other countries eventually begin to pull out of Haiti, don’t be surprised when you continue to see Tzu Chi still there offering their own brand of compassionate care.
This month, Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation opened its new facilities for the Northwest region at 2355 Oakland Street, San Jose. As Taiwan Insights walked through the sprawling three-building complex with Mr. Minjhing Hsieh, he talked enthusiastically about the expanded services that can now be offered thanks to the additional space. Hsieh is the executive director of the Northwest region and like many at Tzu Chi, he is also a full time volunteer.
Tzu Chi is Taiwan’s largest charity. Started by a Buddhist nun in 1966, the foundation has offices in 47 countries and has five million sponsors. Tzu Chi means “compassionate relief” in Chinese and it is something the Foundation’s one million volunteers strive for when working in: charity, medicine, education, culture, international relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection and community volunteerism.
After major disasters, you will see neatly dressed Tzu Chi volunteers working side by side with other international relief organizations. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Tzu Chi arrived to help. Within a matter of months, they gave away US$3 million to 17,000 families. In many cases, after other organizations have left, Tzu Chi remains to help rebuild. Three days after Sri Lanka’s devastating Tsunami in 2004, Tzu Chi flew in twenty medical doctors, 2,000 pounds of rice and 300 tents to the heart of the damage. Six months later, Tzu Chi volunteers were still there building 649 new homes at the cost of US$100 million.
Master Cheng Yen, Asia’s Mother Teresa
Tzu Chi was founded by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Considered the “Mother Teresa of Asia,” she has been a repeated nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born as Wong Chin-yun, she was adopted by her uncle as a baby and grew up to be a devoted daughter. At the age of 15 , her mother suffered from acute gastric perforation, an extremely painful condition. Surgery was an option, but often deadly and not very successful in those days. Praying and chanting “Compassion, Buddha,” she promised to become a vegetarian and to give up 12 years of her life if her mother was spared. Her mother would later make a full recovery without surgery and live to a ripe old age. Upon becoming a nun, Chin-yun was given a Buddhist name of “Cheng Yen.”
In 1966, after realizing there were no organized Buddhist charities, Master Cheng Yen started the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association. She asked her initial followers, 30 housewives, to save fifty cents a day (about two US cents) in bamboo piggy banks. By pooling their savings, they were able to start a charity fund to assist the poor. Much of Tzu Chi’s successes can be attributed to Master Cheng’s ability to see a need and to fulfil it, despite the insurmountable obstacles in the way. One example of this can be seen in Tzu Chi’s efforts to build its first hospital.
Upon realizing that the root of poverty often stems from ill health, Master Cheng decided to focus on medical care and set out to build a hospital in Hualien. Estimated to cost NT$800 million (US$25.2 million), many thought the hospital was an impossible dream. At that time, the annual Hualien County annual budget was only NT$100 million (US$3.1 million). It would take her seven years to realize her goal, but in 1986 the hospital was finally completed. In order to attract quality healthcare professionals to the area, the Foundation would later build schools, homes and a medical school. In 2005, Tzu Chi completed its sixth hospital on the island.
The Foundation growing internationally
In the United States, Tzu Chi is divided into nine regions overseeing 62 offices and 19 academies. In Tzu Chi’s Northwest (TCNW) region, the Foundation has 13 offices and four Academies offering a variety of classes and services. To see their scheduled programs for the Northwest, please visit: www.tcnw.org.
Each week, Tzu Chi volunteers work with the homeless in San Jose, offering food, clothes and haircuts. They also make weekly visits to convalescent homes throughout their regions. During some weeks in summer and winter, they can be found distributing up to 7,000 pounds of food in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
As part of character building, Tzu Chi also offers classes on Master Cheng’s spiritual teachings. Even though the organization espouses Buddhist teachings, volunteers need not be Buddhist nor are most of the people they serve. In fact, the majority of people Tzu Chi serves outside the classrooms are African-Americans, Latinos and Chicanos. With branches in the Central Valley, many of those helped are migrant workers.
Although Tzu Chi’s has expanded by offering more programs and services, one of its main focuses is still in offering medical care to the needy. And this is one of Hsieh’s bigger tasks ahead as he eagerly tackles the opening of a low cost medical clinic in their new facility. Currently, as part of its medical outreach programs, TCNW operates The Great Love Medical Van, which offers dental care in the Bay Area and Central Valley. The van is a full service dental office, containing sophisticated x-ray and computer equipment.
Needy schools get a boost
Shirley C. Leong is another example of a dedicated volunteer. A board of director for TCNW and a former director of the San Francisco branch of Tzu Chi for ten years, she is particularly excited about the Foundation’s work in San Francisco schools. In 2004, Tzu Chi went to John Muir Elementary School as part of the Foundation’s Give-A-Book project. Located on Oak and Webster Streets, the majority of the school’s students came from low income homes, with some living in shelters. Soon after visiting the school to give away books, John Muir’s principal called her to see if Tzu Chi could put together fifty bags of daily use items for the kids. Since then, Tzu Chi has worked with John Muir to provide more daily use bags, school uniforms, blankets, sleeping bags, “love bags” of weekend snacks and other needs. Eventually, Tzu Chi started a Friday pantry program at certain schools to distribute two thousand pounds of food each week.
In working with schools, Tzu Chi has gotten permission to give short character-building lessons to classes as well. One basic Jing Si Aphorism by Master Cheng that they try to impart to the kids is to “say good words, have good thoughts and do good deeds.”
As part of TCNW’s environmental program, students at John Muir are taught the importance of recycling and every class is given a recycling box. Each Friday, Tzu Chi volunteers collect and count the recycling. The class that collects the most is then rewarded with an ice cream party. It is a good way to teach environmental responsibility and for the classes to earn money for field trips. In 2008, when Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, the students showed compassionate relief by donating their US$500 recycling money to help Burma.
Tzu Chi is now working with Malcolm X in Hunter Point, another underperforming school in one of San Francisco’s poorest areas, with similar programs. Today, John Muir is a magnet school and considered a “model recycling school,” Leong said with pride.
Providing material and emotional needs
What makes Tzu Chi unique is their donor-base. According to Hsieh, “The bulk of the support comes from the bottom. A lot of people on the lowest rung save or even collect cans to recycle and donate.” Added to that, it is a volunteer-heavy organization, which is extremely well organized and well trained. In order to be certified as a Tzu Chi volunteer, you need to undergo two years of training.
In the Bay Area, Tzu Chi has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the International Red Cross. In time of disaster, such as a fire, flood, or earthquake, Red Cross professionals are the first response. After they assess the situation, they will often call Tzu Chi volunteers to fill in the gaps in services. Whereas the Red Cross might be able to set up beds in schools or give some aid for temporary shelter, Tzu Chi can be on hand to give away debit cards, clothes, food and blankets.
As a non-profit organization that does not accept government money, Tzu Chi is not mired in bureaucracy and can act quickly to free up needed cash. More importantly, “we are faith-based, so we carry a humanistic characteristic in our delivery of service. We offer respect to the people who receive our service,” Hsieh said. Tzu Chi tries not only to supply the material needs but also considers the individual’s emotional needs.
Although the Foundation’s biggest growth has come from Southeast Asia, this might change now that Tzu Chi is a formally approved organization in China. The Foundation has worked in China since the 1991 flood, but it wasn’t until last year that Beijing gave Tzu Chi this rare recognition. This has allowed Tzu Chi to begin a dramatic growth spurt in China as the Tzu Chi Charity Foundation.
Forty-four years ago, a Buddhist nun had a desire to start a charity. Since then, it has grown into the biggest charity in Taiwan with satellite television stations, six hospitals, 40,000 volunteers and a national recycling program that generates US$10 million a year. In the United States’ Northwest region alone, Tzu Chi has an impressive number of standing programs and volunteer opportunities. It maintains a presence in many corners of the world and stands ready to respond to the next natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.