I dropped everything this week when I was invited to hear about the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwan Buddhist foundation started by a Buddhist nun in Taiwan in 1966.
What compelled me to go was that the name Tzu Chi keeps coming up whenever relief work is ongoing anywhere in this archipelago. More so, lately with our serial disasters, natural and man-made, Tzu Chi was in Zamboanga during the siege of the MNLF, in Bohol after the earthquake and is, as we speak, in Leyte since November 14 after Typhoon Yolanda blew through the Visayas.
What I learned at the vegetarian dinner served by the Tzu Chi volunteers themselves in their uniforms of white pants and dark blue shirts was nothing short of astonishing. Tzu Chi is in 60 countries around the world doing medical missions, recycling, giving out food packages as well as building schools and houses for the needy. In Haiti, they rebuilt the school of a Catholic order of nuns and turned it over to them to continue their education work.
Tzu Chi Foundation does what they call Buddhist compassion relief but they do not proselytize, they work with anyone and in any country. They are in North Korea, in African countries, in Iran, in South Asia, in 60 countries.
Manifold tasks for Mother Earth
They have compassion for Mother Earth too aside from human beings and are big on recycling and best practices farming raising nutritious crops that are healthful to humankind.
They have been in the Philippines for 17 years now (Tzu Chi Foundation is 47 years old) and have 1,500 local volunteers in Metro Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga (where they have liaison offices). In Manila at the Great Love Campus in Santa Mesa they have a free dental and eye clinic where they do minor surgery i.e. cataract surgery.
Tzu Chi would be quietly doing its work in the environment, poverty alleviation, education, and direct work with poor families in this country. Except that with our natural and man-made disasters, they have had to shift major resources towards relief.
Thus, somewhere in news reports of disasters buried in the small type would be mention of Tzu Chi Foundation at work among the displaced, the needy and the sick. They are virtually First Responders and come quickly in their blue and white uniforms with the basics—pots and pans, blankets, mats. They have a signature instant rice that has different flavors that they serve in their hot meals. Before they leave they rebuild schools, conduct in depth medical missions, manage to borrow dump trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment and conduct their very successful and original “cash for work” activities.
Their first major relief work in this country began in Infanta, Quezon in 2004 when landslides and floods took 600 lives. Tzu Chi rushed in with the basics and joined in the cleaning up of the mud that had cascaded through the houses and towns. Noting that when people cleaned their houses and dumped the mud in the streets, they turned to cleaning the streets themselves. People soon followed their example. Humility and service is their way.
Bicol during a typhoon in 2006 was the next big relief effort—medical mission, relief supplies, comfort and care followed by Tzu Chi Foundation building a high school in Tabaco, which took them two years.
Making idle hands useful
September 2007 brought OndIoy to Metro Manila with Marikina being the hardest hit area. People lost everything including the clothes from their backs. Tzu Chi was the first private relief group that arrived. Mud was all over after the floods and 300 soldiers were promised to help. So, Tzu Chi bought 300 spades in anticipation but the soldiers were diverted elsewhere.
Seeing young people doing nothing while evacuation centers were full and daily life and commerce had halted, they asked a barangay captain if they could ask the idle men to work with some compensation. The barangay captain suggested P100 to P150 daily wage but Tzu Chi took into consideration that the urban wage was P382 and no banks were open. The volunteers consulted the Dharma Master in Taiwan who suggested they simplify things by paying P400 daily.
So youths were registered and went to work cleaning while Tzu Chi borrowed heavy equipment to take care of large areas filled with debris. They spent 21 days in Marikina and the cash for work idea was born there. Soon stores opened as people had money and special requests to supply their needs.
Cagayan de Oro in 2011 was hit by Typhoon Sendong followed by Mindanao in December 2012 with Typhoon Pablo. Besides the basic relief work, Tzu Chi built a school that cost P40M and took 18 months to erect in Mindanao. Their work goes beyond the disaster time.
The man-made calamity of Zamboanga was an agony of burning and suffering and again meals, medical attention, comfort and compassion had to be given. Tzu Chi relates with the people it helps by conducting singing, storytelling and giving aphorisms about life’s ups and downs. It builds confidence between the helped and those who help. It sees the good in people and invites them to show it by doing their own acts of kindness and sacrifice for others.
The Bohol earthquake in October was another disaster relief operation on a large scale. Tzu Chi will be involved in rebuilding schools for some time there.
And finally, the unprecedented off-the-books Typhoon Yolanda of November 8, 2013 brought Tzu Chi there by November 14. Children begging for food with fear in their eyes, sunburned, thin and among strangers met them. Heart-rending scenes of desperation and suffering, tragic tales of deaths and disappearances, destruction, chaos.
After giving out relief packages, the cash for work method kicked in. They offered P500 a day for cleaning up the debris from the streets. Any man, woman or child that registered and worked was paid P500. The first day 620 worked. Next days, more and more. Jeepneys full of people from outside Tacloban came to work; they were hired. When people had money, stores opened, things for sale like food and water emerged, commerce picked up. Eventually, they had 33,000 people working. Tzu Chi is still there with volunteers spelling each other out.
The ones at the dinner had been to Tacloban and back, I asked about a particular town and a particular mayor and one volunteer had been there and said they built seven quonset-type classrooms. There was a model of the structures they built that they passed around and gave me one. It has three windows on each side and two openings overhead. In the cleanup of Tacloban they again borrowed heavy equipment to do the heavy lifting i.e. dump trucks, eight payloaders and one backhoe.
Tzu Chi volunteers pay their way from transportation to accommodations. They are the conduit for the donations given for the victims of disasters. They have a record of their accomplishments but they do not seek publicity.
Beyond the material, Tzu Chi emphasizes spiritual upliftment for the hurt in spirit. They stay, talk sing and dance with the disaster victims to make them relax and courageous for the days ahead. Tzu Chi believes that people should be given chances to do something good for it blesses them. Thus, they ask for small donations from those who have earned something to help others who still have nothing. Donations do come, mostly in coins, victims too can be donors and do something for others.
This is a country prone to calamity but somewhere, somehow, the human spirit rises to the opportunity to be heroic, good, compassionate amidst the tragedy. Tzu Chi Foundation is a miracle of sacrifice and care for their fellow human beings.