Time Capsule: Tzu Chi and the Freeway Complex Fire

March 22, 2009

East Anaheim Gymnasium

East Anaheim Gymnasium

As with the previous two entries on this blog, I’m reposting a few stories I wrote last semester for USC graduate journalism classes.  In this story originally written in late November 2008, we explore what role the Tzu Chi Foundation had in helping those affected by the Freeway Complex Fire.  Just what is the Tzu Chi Foundation anyway?

Almost a week after the Freeway Complex Fire swept through Orange County, the local assistance center at the East Anaheim Gymnasium was still filled with agencies looking to help those affected by the fire.  Although traffic from fire victims at the gym had declined by November 20, that Thursday marked the first day the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on hand to help those in need.

Smoke above the 91 freeway

Smoke above the 91 freeway

While most agencies operated from one or two tables in the center of the gym, FEMA and the Red Cross each took up an entire wall.  Given the collaborative work the Red Cross does with organizations like the Tzu Chi Foundation, its presence makes sense.

“Part of peace work is to know what’s available in the community,” says Matilde Gabriela, assistant director for disaster and client services in the Red Cross.

The Red Cross can’t help everyone, Gabriela says, so it’s important to be aware of local agencies that can assist in the relief effort.  Tzu Chi is an international Buddhist philanthropic foundation started in Taiwan 42 years ago.  Today, the foundation has 62 offices in the U.S. including one in Santa Ana, not too far from the Freeway Complex fire, which burned more than 30,000 acres.

Inside the Anaheim Gym

Inside the Anaheim Gym

The Red Cross works with the Orange County Fire Authority to determine the level of damage a fire has done to a house.  Once a Red Cross volunteer has that information – plus the person’s income – the fire victim is sent to agencies that might be able to help, like the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Although Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers like Lynn Lii and Stephen Wuu encourage everyone who comes to their tables to “look on the bright side,” undoubtedly it is the financial support that is most helpful to some.  Still, Lii and Wuu point out that a couple people have declined financial support on top of the vocal support and blankets made from recycled bottles, saying others might need it more.

Another view of smoke over the 91 freeway

Another view of smoke over the 91 freeway

Once the Red Cross gives Tzu Chi information about each case number, volunteers can determine whether a family is eligible for the up to $500 in help.  Tzu Chi reserves money for those whose houses have had “Major” or “Total” damage, the two top damage categories for the Red Cross and OCFA.  Families must also fall into one of the lower income categories as well, though Lii and Wuu note there are exceptions.

On Tuesday, Tzu Chi’s busiest day at the gym so far, about $14,000 was given to 50 families, or an average of $280 per family.  Naturally, the foundation would like to give more financial support to eligible families, but the international foundation can get only so many donations.  After helping out Tzu Chi’s San Diego chapter in the recent wildfires and providing support for victims of the fires in Sylmar, Tzu Chi is in need of more funds.

FEMA booth outside Anaheim Gym

FEMA booth outside Anaheim Gym

“Pretty soon we’ll have volunteers start fundraising,” says another Tzu Chi volunteer.

Fundraising involves standing in front of stores and supermarkets and accepting donations.  Tzu Chi has the best luck getting donations immediately after a disaster, but with the economic downturn, the foundation will need to work harder or rely on the support of other nationwide chapters to keep it going.


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