Celebrating 20 Years of Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Mobile Outreaches

TIMA  |  September 29, 2021
Members of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation pose for a photo in front of a Tzu Chi mobile unit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Fresno Mobile Clinic. Photo/Shuli Lo

Written by Olivia Chung and Audrey Cheng
Translated by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Mobile Outreaches. After sunrise on August 28, 2021, volunteers rushed to the auditorium at the Mountain View Elementary School to get ready for a celebration to commemorate the occasion. It also embodies the progress of Tzu Chi’s medical mission in northern California, which began simply from the desire to bring quality care to those in need.

Today, there are four vehicles in operation as mobile clinics as part of the Tzu Chi Northwest Region. Over the years, other regional offices across Tzu Chi USA have taken inspiration from this and some are ready to emulate this effort (like Tzu Chi’s Northeast Region). While it hasn’t been an easy journey for Tzu Chi volunteers in Fresno, this small but mighty team’s passion and enthusiasm have stayed constant over the last two decades.

In Farm Workers’ Footsteps

Volunteers began decorating the auditorium early on August 28. Photo/Shuli Lo

California’s Central Valley is one of the most productive farming regions in the United States. From here, Americans across the country can enjoy grapes, corn, sugar, nuts, and so much more, but few of us ever see the tanned faces or the calloused hands of the farm workers who make it possible to put these natural foods on our tables.

Many of these seasonal workers in the Central Valley come from low-income households. The nature of their work is such that they are not eligible to receive insurance from their employers and often choose to forgo this luxury altogether. At the same time, exorbitant medical expenses in the US, cultural and linguistic gaps, and a lack of transportation make receiving medical attention even more difficult and is enough to push a small family below the poverty line should one member fall ill.

Aware of all this, Tzu Chi Fresno has long been particularly concerned with the healthcare needs of migrant workers. Furthermore, crews of farm workers usually migrate between farms according to when crops are ready to be harvested, and their locations are widespread across the entire Central Valley. Considering this, setting up a traditional clinic would not have been effective. So, Tzu Chi volunteers thought outside the box and developed a new idea. This did not stump the volunteers, but prompted them to get creative instead.
Instead of making farm workers come to them, in 2001, the Tzu Chi Fresno team held their very first mobile outreach to serve individuals in their own towns and cities. This way, the vehicles could be parked at an accessible location and provide quality care where patients were located. All these services would be provided for free, and what Tzu Chi Medical now offers has grown.

Twenty Years of Care

Twenty years later, Tzu Chi volunteers host a special ceremony in Fresno, CA. 140 guests from all over the world arrived to congratulate the volunteers’ hard work and celebrate. Steven Voon, Deputy Chief Executive of the Fresno Mobile Clinic, has been part of the team from the very beginning and has seen his team’s triumphs and challenges over the years.

Steven Voon emotionally addresses the crowd, reflecting on his team’s 20 year journey. Photo/Shuli Lo

“We started with nothing. Twenty years ago, we had to drive to Southern California to borrow dental equipment. The trip took eight hours, and, after the event, it took another eight hours to return the equipment.”

The first few years, he tells us, were the most difficult. Thankfully, in 2005, the team received their first donation, which they used to purchase three sets of dental equipment; then in 2008, someone donated the first Da Ai vehicle. Today, they have four vehicles operating as mobile clinics.

Driving these mobile units, medical volunteers and volunteer medical professionals can travel to remote areas to perform dental check-ups, teeth cleaning, simple dental procedures, as well as measure patients’ blood pressure, and perform blood glucose tests. The fleet has also expanded to include vision mobile units, which offer state-of-the-art vision care that includes vision screenings, eye exams, and free prescription glasses. All of this is done for free.

Improving Health and Touching Hearts

Around 140 guests attended the celebration. Photo/Shuli Lo

Over the past twenty years, Tzu Chi Fresno has held a total of 1,031 mobile outreaches, providing free medical, dental, vision, and holistic services for the uninsured and underinsured. Their particular focus has been underserved populations including migrant farm workers. Even through the pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers provided their support in different ways.

“Southern and Northern California have much better medical resources than Central California, where people were really in need,” said Minjhing Hsieh, the executive director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region. “During the pandemic, Tzu Chi donated personal protective equipment and helped vaccinate Californians, and our outreach efforts were met with great approval.”

In addition to medical care in times of emergency, these families also lack basic, day-to-day medical resources. Eddie Rodriguez, the program coordinator of the Fresno Migrant Worker Education Program, said that Central California is home to many disadvantaged farm workers.

Many of these families, he explained, live a nomadic lifestyle, moving frequently. As they make very little, many parents cannot afford the high costs of prescription eyeglasses for their children. What’s more, many are not even aware that their child experiences vision problems in the first place.

For these reasons, Tzu Chi’s vision mobile units make routine visits to schools across California to conduct vision tests and provide free prescription lenses and frames. Students most often receive their glasses on the same day. Those with special cases may receive their glasses within two weeks at the latest.

But, before they make big decisions on their work, Tzu Chi volunteers guide their thought process by asking themselves, ‘what do these families need?’ Their sincere wish to help not only moves those who receive their assistance, but also encourages medical volunteers to pitch in.

Dr. Graciela Esquivel-Aguilar has been practicing medicine for 40 years. After many years of working as a doctor, she had lost her enthusiasm for helping others until ten years ago, when she met Steven Voon. He introduced her to Tzu Chi, and encouraged her to participate in their medical outreaches. Dr. Esquivel-Aguilar’s experience, she shared, had been rejuvenating.

“I remember a patient with disheveled long hair, who got his hair cut at the outreach. His face just lit up with a bright smile. I told him, ‘You look much better!’ And that person said, ‘I don't know how many years it’s been since I last had my hair cut. Today, I not only cut my hair, but also had my teeth cleaned. I feel amazing all over!’”

As donations and resources poured in over the years, Tzu Chi medical volunteers have felt encouraged to drive the mobile units to even more remote areas, where they are most needed. The Tzu Chi Fresno team has also lit the torches of volunteers in New York and Las Vegas, who are steadily making efforts to provide mobile medical services to their own communities. One day, it’s our sincere hope that Tzu Chi’s mobile units can reach every corner of the United States and serve as many Americans in need as possible.

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