Buddhist relief service reaches out to Santa Cruz County

by MELISSA WEAVER, San Jose Mercury, June 22, 2008

San Jose, CA (USA) -- Tzu Chi disaster relief volunteers always bow in respect when handing blankets to disaster victims, who "teach us to appreciate what we have," said volunteer Sherry Shih.

The Buddhist nonprofit group has grown to more than 5 million supporters worldwide with chapters in 30 countries since its inception in Taiwan 42 years ago. With almost 10,000 supporters in the San Francisco Bay Area, the organization is looking for volunteers in Santa Cruz to establish a local chapter.

Relief efforts for people who suffered damages in the Martin Fire are also in the works. Paul Chu, the emergency response director, said that they work closely with the Red Cross, and Tzu Chi is waiting for that organization to refer families who need assistance to them. Since the Summit Fire, Tzu Chi has been working with nine families who have lost their homes. The organization has distributed $4,300 to them for rebuilding efforts.

"We take care of the person from beginning to end," Chu said.

After a disaster, Tzu Chi dispatches a response team, which assesses damages, then helps victims rebuild by giving them what they need. That can be anything from a blanket and personal hygiene kit to a house. Chu stressed that they don't want to duplicate what the Red Cross does, but complement it.

"We keep in touch with victims to determine their needs," said Shih, who added that continuing care lasts for years in some cases, such as with Hurricane Katrina.

The foundation was established in 1966 by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun from Taiwan. Her first 30 members, primarily Taiwanese housewives, were told to save 50 Taiwan cents a day from their grocery money. Instead of asking for a lump sum, daily saving is encouraged because it forces people to think about giving every day, said Shih.

A working Buddhist monastery is located in the mountains around Hualien, Taiwan, from where Tzu Chi members receive their spiritual direction.

Although the six current volunteers in the Northwest chapter, based in Milpitas, are Buddhist, one does not have to be Buddhist to join. The volunteers all said that they do not evangelize, but rather try to lives and work according to the four Tzu Chi missions of charity, medicine, education and culture. Tzu Chi culture refers to "treading lightly on the earth," by reducing one's carbon footprint, and providing spiritual support to disaster victims, said Chu.

To volunteer, donate, or for more information contact the Tzu Chi foundation at 408-262-3389.