Celebrating Vegetarianism at the Bakersfield’s Medical Outreach

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  March 11, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteer explained the benefits of a healthy vegetarian diet to young participant Berenice Lopez and invited her to join in on the vegetarian movement.

Written by Jane Lu & Elvis Gao
Photos by Shu Li Lo & Henry Nhan
Edited by Monique Kuo & Dilber Shatursun

While several states have raised the alarm on the spread of the new coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19, Tzu Chi USA has been educating service users, volunteers, and staff on the importance of taking precautions and is canceling or postponing planned activities. Yet, while risk was still considered relatively low in the United States in February, the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation hosted a medical outreach in Bakersfield, CA, on February 23rd.

On the day, volunteers gathered at the Tzu Chi Community Clinic in South El Monte at 5:45 AM to take a bus to Bakersfield. Before getting on the bus, everyone was required to have their temperature taken and hands washed to protect themselves and others.

Dr. Shirley Chan and Bessie Nhan put on a handwashing demonstration.

During the two-hour bus ride, Dr. Shirley Chen reminded the volunteers of their assigned working stations and tasks and emphasized the significance of this medical outreach. She and volunteer Bessie Nhan also further demonstrated the correct way of washing one’s hands, wearing masks, and encouraged everyone to participate in a universal prayer at 1:30 PM to deliver blessings for COVID-19 affected areas, connecting with each other through mindfulness and love.

By the time they arrived at Bakersfield, many patients were already waiting. For instance, Athzirg Navarro arrived at 5:00 AM to ensure he could see a dentist. Athzirg’s mother is a housewife and father is a temporary worker; yet, regardless of the scarce resources which they have, Athzirg still brought back a bamboo bank full of change saved to help others. Athzirg shared that he had often been helped by Tzu Chi and he would like to give back.

Manuel Cervantes arrives for treatment with a full bamboo bank in hand.

Manuel Cervantes, another care recipient,  also brought his bamboo bank back. Miguel hopes many more people will be able to benefit from the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s free services, just as he did. He’s also a regular due to his high blood pressure, which is closely monitored when he comes in for treatment with and medication from the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation.

Angela Valladares, a volunteer, is a counselor at Golden Oak Elementary School. An omnivore for most of her life,  she switched to a vegetarian diet after removing her gallbladder there years ago. Like so many who are lifelong omnivores, it was initially difficult for Angela to stave off her cravings for meat.

But, she’s seen much progress and change. Angela reported feeling more energetic as a vegetarian, versus feeling sluggish as an omnivore. Her experience led her to become a passionate advocate for vegetarianism among her students. Whenever she senses their resistance from eating more vegetables, Angela’s advice is to take it one step at a time by slowly reducing meat intake.

Volunteer Angela Valladares goes through the rundown and to-do list of the day.

For this particular medical outreach, Dr. Shirley Chan and Min Leu were the main coordinators. Given the rising threat of the COVID-19 epidemic, they had even considered cancelling the outreach. But, they felt the needs of the community at large were still important to address. How would they balance safety and access to quality care? Min Leu got encouragement from fellow volunteers.

I see a fearless expression on your faces that say, “take all precautions and cut no services.

Furthermore, Tzu Chi Medical volunteers decided to respond to Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s appeals to all to pray for the world and adopt a vegetarian diet in the face of COVID-19 by hosting a brief, universal prayer for everyone to partake in. It gave a gravity to the outreach like no other.

Tzu Chi Medical volunteers and care recipients of all backgrounds offer prayers to all those impacted by COVID-19 at the Bakersfield medical outreach

To further spread this message of solidarity and peace, Sylvia Wihardjo, a licensed CPA working for the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, set up a booth with vegetarian foods. She first came across Tzu Chi and the teachings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen in Indonesia and was so touched by her wisdom, inspiration, and love for sentient beings. Since then, Sylvia has been actively volunteering in community outreach as a dental assistant whenever she is available. 

Sylvia Wihardjo (far left) looks on as two volunteers give presentations on vegetarianism.
Berenice Lopez delivers touching remarks on the importance of vegetarianism

Sylvia used a vegetarian nutrition education kit to introduce vegetarianism to patients at the Bakersfield outreach. At the same time, she shared basic updates on COVID-19. Sylvia expressed that she was really glad that some patients agreed to try to eat vegetarian food after her presentations.

A little girl, Berenice Lopez, too, came to the Bakersfield outreach with her mom who was looking for medical help. While she was waiting for her mom to get treated, she was attracted by the vegetarian food booth. After listening to the explanation and watching and demonstrating why vegetarian food is good for one’s health, Berenice explained to the others in the crowd why they should listen up.  others to eat vegetarian food, which touched a lot of people. 

The outreach concluded on a high, hopeful note as many patients left knowing how to better care for their health, but also better prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.