"Tzu Chi volunteers told me that the cash card I received today comes from the coins donated into the bamboo coin bank by people from different places. I remember having a big bag of coins which I have been keeping in the car boot for a long time. Now I can help people in need too,” said Neftali, one of the victims of the Northern California wildfire. He was deeply moved by how Tzu Chi has been raising funds for charity, and so he poured out the coins which he had been keeping for a long time into two bamboo coin banks. The clinking sound of coins dropping into the donation container put a smile on his face. For a moment, his negative emotions caused by the recent wildfires were temporarily replaced with the happiness in his heart.
Northern California has been severely affected by an unprecedented wildfire that started burning since mid-August this year. In view of a need for emergency relief, Tzu Chi Northern California swiftly mobilized volunteers to launch a relief programme for the victims. The volunteers had also completed the first issuance of cash cards to the victims at the Santa Cruz Community Assistance Center (Santa Cruz LAC) on 13 September. On 19 September, volunteers carried out the second issuance of cash cards to provide short term living support to these victims who had lost their homes to the raging wildfire.
Bringing love and hope through the bamboo coin bank campaign
On 19 September, Neftali came to Santa Cruz LAC to collect the cash card. Neftali lives in the southern coast of the Bay Area and was running a surfboard production workshop. Affected by the CZU Fire Complex, not only is Neftali’s house completely destroyed by the wildfire, his business has also suffered a great loss.
At the site of the aid distribution, Neftali was moved to tears when he listened to Tzu Chi volunteer, Wu Shu Hui reading out a letter from Master Cheng Yen in English to him. He said, “I can feel the love from the letter. I have mixed feelings. I feel sad and joy at the same time.”
After learning that the cash value in the cash card comes from the donation accumulated in the bamboo coin bank by different people over a period of time, Neftali recalled having a big bag of coins in his car which he had been keeping for more than a year.
"This is my emergency fund which I have been saving for quite some time. Today, this fund has found a purpose," said Neftali. With the hope of helping more people, Neftali immediately donated the bag of coins he kept in his car. His big bag of coins has filled up two bamboo coin banks. Volunteer Xie Ming Ling took out two of the coins and put them into a new bamboo coin bank and gave it to Neftali. Xie smiled and said, "Keep your love pouring in." Neftali responded by saying that if he could restart his workshop, he would place this bamboo coin bank in his shop and share with every customer the origin and purpose of this bamboo coin bank.
When Neftali left, he brought with him a cash card, a blanket, a cloth mask and a bamboo coin bank with two coins in it. He happily said to Tzu Chi volunteers, "I will be back with this bamboo coin bank filled with coins."
Provision of timely assistance in an efficient manner
The wildfire has spread across many locations in Northern California while the nation is still struggling to battle the coronavirus pandemic. To make assistance more accessible and convenient, online application is used to receive relief applications from disaster victims. Once an application is submitted online, Tzu Chi volunteers would make a phone call to the victim to find out about the victim’s situation before arranging for the victim to collect his or her living allowance at the centre.
On 19 September, a total of 29 victims had come to Santa Cruz LAC to collect their cash cards. Those who came were also given blankets and cloth masks. There were also volunteers from Santa Cruz County Park Friends who assisted on site and provided guidance on handling various matters with relevant units. The Executive Director of Park Friends, Mariah Robert had also come forward to visit Tzu Chi volunteers.
"I can finally inform the victims that immediate help is available here after Tzu Chi volunteers showed up at the community assistance centre,” said Maria. She is also impressed by how well directed and efficient Tzu Chi volunteer’s disaster relief work is.
After experiencing the trauma of losing their home to the wildfire, these disaster-stricken families feel helpless and are too exhausted to go through the lengthy process and long wait for the processing of various documents and application for insurance claims. On the contrary, the cash card by Tzu Chi has been able to give them the most direct and immediate help they need. Maria specifically stated that when Friends of the Park (an organization) visits disaster victims in nearby mountainous areas and other places in the next few days, the organization will convey to the victims that Tzu Chi is providing immediate financial assistance so that victims who are still facing difficulties can cope with the immediate challenges.
Lending a listening ear to the victims of wildfire
Yang Kai Cheng who just turned 18 has been actively involved in Tzu Chi volunteering activities since he was a young child. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 2020, he saw the news about the wildfire disaster during his summer vacation while waiting for the start of his doctoral degree program. He then immediately joined the ranks of the volunteers to help in the cash card issuance project.
On 19 September, Yang accompanied three other Tzu Chi volunteers, Huang Qi Zhen, Liao Qiong Yu and Zhang Jin Bao to the Santa Cruz Mountains and the area nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park to assess the disaster situation. Most of the houses located at two of the most severely affected mountainous areas were destroyed, leaving the families homeless. Tzu Chi’s aid relief leaflets were put inside the residents’ mailboxes by volunteers with the hope that these victims would receive the information and start applying for relief assistance online when they get home.
Yang also took up the duty of making phone call interviews where he and a few other volunteers contacted the victims who had made their application online to find out about their situation in order to provide them with the appropriate amount of aid relief. With no prior experience of making phone call interviews, Yang was mistaken as a fraudster who makes scam calls. After getting some guidance from experienced volunteers, Yang realized that he had to first introduce Tzu Chi Foundation to the victims to gain their trust before proceeding to confirm the information with the victims.
"There are three adults in the family with mobility issue and are unable to work, and another five are young children who are still schooling. The whole family has been surviving on government welfare pay-outs. After their house got burned down by the wildfire this year, the family is forced to live in a caravan and a truck parked at the empty yard of a friend’s place. The trauma is so overwhelming that one of the children is now seeking counselling at the school,” shared Yang. Yang’s patience and earnest care has led to one of the disaster victims to let his guard down and started telling Yang about his family’s plight.
After interacting with the victims through phone, Yang said emotionally, "We have never experienced the misfortune currently faced by these victims, so we may not be able to fully understand what they are thinking. Not many people are willing to listen to what these victims have to say. The victims have lesser opportunities to interact with others too due to the pandemic. If someone is willing to talk to them and listen to what they want to say, they are willing to tell us what is in their mind."
A caring phone call and the handing out of cash cards to the affected victims, are the most immediate assistance given by Tzu Chi volunteers in Northern California. It is hoped that the victims would be able to tide through this crisis and be able to stay strong to rebuild their homes soon.