Tzu Chi’s Efforts to Help the Homeless Expands with First-Ever Vision Outreach in Las Vegas

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  December 6, 2019

Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Natasha Palance

Tzu Chi’s Las Vegas medical outreach has made great advancements in its provision of services since launching four years ago. Despite the small size of the county, Las Vegas’ homeless population continues to rank among the highest in the nation, many lacking access to necessities like basic medical care. Among the many challenges underprivileged communities face, the impact of dental and vision problems is often overlooked. While many aid programs provide help via food, clothing, and housing, the necessity of dental and vision services is rarely considered. 

Tzu Chi Las Vegas launched its first vision outreach this past September 29th, after more than four years of dental service provision throughout the county. Medical volunteer Dr.Karen Hsueh’s team was invited to facilitate the event, marking a new milestone for Tzu Chi’s Las Vegas Service Center. Program initiatives aim to enter school campuses as soon as possible to facilitate eye care services for underserved students.

In September, the team mobilized a total of 86 volunteers consisting of 38 qualified medical volunteers, including dentists, dental assistants, physicians and nurses, 5 hairdressers and 69 general volunteers to change the lives of those in need. Patients received comprehensive eye exams and access to free prescription glasses when applicable — and our compassionate patient-centered care didn’t end there. 50 patients waiting to receive care received free haircuts. The gratitude from all patients who received care was warmly felt with each smile of satisfaction that was expressed. In return, volunteers felt an invigorating sense of fulfillment; all agreed to participate in future events.

“John” had the privilege of becoming the first vision outreach patient in Las Vegas. After learning that he would receive his free glasses in just three days, he was full of joy and anticipation to start a better future with clear vision. With great excitement he exclaimed, “Tzu Chi gave me hope!”

Another patient suffering from homelessness found relief in Tzu Chi’s care. “I enjoyed the dental service, vision exam, and free second-hand clothes; The volunteers are very friendly to me and the doctors are very professional,” the patient explained. “They treated me like an ordinary person from the beginning to the end. In Tzu Chi volunteers’ eyes, I am respected.” Through these heartfelt words, this individual expressed that the most important thing for him is not the expensive dental services, but the way he was treated by Tzu Chi volunteers.

This patient is only one of many within the disadvantaged communities who face debilitating health circumstances, as necessities like medical care are often overlooked in the search for stable living conditions. In combination with financial challenges, many suffer from enduring visual impairments and unmet eye care needs. This becomes a particular challenge for those in need of vision care to succeed in their education, like children who struggle to see at school. For those who are homeless, uninsured, or low income, the average cost of a pair of glasses is often considered to be a luxury and less of a priority.

Audrey Cheng (first left) and a Tzu Chi volunteer happily pose with Dr. Karen Hsueh’s team. Photo by Luca Yeh

Tzu Chi medical volunteer Dr. Xue first learned of Tzu Chi online, and was inspired to support our humanitarian mission ever since. Compared with a dentist who has participated in our medical outreach for nearly five years, she is considered a new volunteer at Tzu Chi. After conducting the initial service provision with her team, Dr. Xue dedicated to continue to participate in Tzu Chi medical outreach events. The team also agreed to actively participate at Tzu Chi medical outreach events and support fundraising efforts for a new Vision Mobile vehicle.

Since 2015, Tzu Chi’s Las Vegas Service Center has been providing free dental services to the local homeless community at The Salvation Army Activity Center. Tzu Chi volunteers have served thousands of underprivileged low income, uninsured and homeless individuals to date. Each patient is treated with utmost care by our team of medical professionals, with warm hands soothing faces swollen due to toothache and putting an end to the pain.

Dr. Xue (left) conducts vision exam for a patient, in accordance with her dedication to support Tzu Chi’s mission of compassionate care. Photo by Audrey Cheng
Dedicated doctors and assistants serve patients during a Las Vegas medical outreach event. Photo by Audrey Cheng

Spotted Abroad: Tzu Chi’s Global Front

The relationship between the Las Vegas medical outreach program and Dr. Ting began during a trip to Iran in February of 2014. While on a tour bus, he overheard a temporary proposal from the tour guide: “Not far away from here is a school built by a charity organization from Taiwan. Although this place is not in the itinerary, are you interested in visiting?” Dr. Ting recognized the familiar Tzu Chi logo he had seen in his home country of Taiwan in a foreign land.

On December 26, 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck the ancient city of Bam in Iran, and claimed over 26,000 lives. Tzu Chi mobilized neighboring volunteers to conduct a disaster relief mission, and despite the many challenges, five schools were rebuilt to ensure Iranian students could continue their education. 

There are many charity organizations around the world, and there are many people who do good deeds, but no one can do it like Tzu Chi; seeing Tzu Chi’s School in Bam City and knowing that my donations are used in Iran to rebuild schools, the green logo sparkling under the sun makes me feel excited and moved!

TIMA volunteer Dr. Ting took some time walking around the Tzu Chi School in Bam City. Knowing that Tzu Chi not only provides funding for the Iranian school, but also unconditionally enrolls students in education programs, Dr. Ting witnessed that love truly transcends all borders. Students are not subject to learning Buddhism; they are given flexibility to engage in subjects they see fit in school. In addition, Tzu Chi handed over the school to an Islamic organization to allow students to concentrate on their education.

Happiness for Dr. Ting can be easily obtained; however, after his trip to Iran, he realized an urge of warmth in his heart like never before. When he returned home, he shared what he discovered in Iran with Las Vegas volunteers and pledged to participate in local medical outreach events indefinitely.

Inspired by Tzu Chi’s Project Hope in Iran, Dr. Ting was touched by Master Cheng Yen’s belief in unconditional love transcending all borders. After returning to the states, Dr. Ting actively participated in TIMA and joined a medical outreach event in San Bernardino, California, utilizing all the global experiences he learned back to Las Vegas. In addition to helping the homeless community, he also called on a team of physicians to join TIMA. Since the beginning of 2015, together the joint team has hosted 11 medical outreach events at the Las Vegas Service Center, and in 2019 incorporated free vision services. 

Heart Touching Stories from a Homeless Community

When people from the homeless community walked into the Las Vegas Service Center for assistance for the first-ever vision outreach, Tzu Chi volunteers greeted them with a smile and carefully assisted with questionnaires and registration forms. Each patient was personally accompanied by a volunteer, then headed over to the service provider for one-on-one care. Tzu Chi volunteers ensure to give back to the community and take care of vulnerable groups who live in a “City of Lights,” but are left behind in the dark.

The registration group of volunteers even celebrated a patient’s birthday by singing “Happy Birthday.” Beautifully dressed, the patient, “Lulu”, accepted the blessing from the volunteers with much gratitude and a big smile. Normally the program only permits each patient to see one doctor per visit, but in celebration of this patient’s birthday, they made an exception and gave her two registration numbers as a present. Lulu exclaimed, “This is the best birthday present I’ve ever received!” 

Lulu is a devout Christian. Despite their religious differences, she praised Tzu Chi volunteers’ efficiency and compassion. “The doctors and the volunteers were cordial and courteous,” Lulu explained. She intends to share information about the Tzu Chi Las Vegas Service Center medical outreach program with her church community in order to encourage others in need to benefit from these free services. Then, speaking with much excited, she said, “In three days, I can get my glasses for driving and watching TV. That’s great!”

Another patient named “Jane”, a tall man with long black hair and pink bangs who uses the pronouns he/his, similarly expressed a deep sentiment of gratitude for Tzu Chi’s compassion. Following a visit to a dentist at the Tzu Chi Las Vegas Service Center for a tooth filling, Jane benefitted from the outreach haircut services. He confidently gave his hair stylist clear instructions on how he likes his haircut. With a stylish new do, Jane later visited the second-hand clothing service station for clothes. Tzu Chi volunteers dedicated time to understand Jane’s unique sense of style, and helped him to find pieces that allowed him to continue to express himself through his fashion –  ultimately picking out a pink top. Jane smiled and said, “No one here looks at me differently and treats me with respect.”

A tzu Chi volunteer gives care recipient Jane (him) a free haircut while waiting for his number to be called. Photo by Audrey Cheng

A patient suffering from homelessness, “Sam”, held his denture in the palm of his hand upon arrival at the clinic and asked a volunteer, “Can you repair this denture?” While medical outreach events usually only accept registration for tooth extractions, fillings and cleanings, volunteer dentists always strive to fulfill the individual needs of patients to the best of their ability and resource permitting. Tzu Chi medical volunteer Dr. Phan Nguyen smiled and greeted Sam and quickly helped him repair the denture. Sam said happily, “Great, I can eat my favorite apples again.”

Dr. Phan Nguyen smiles and greets a patient suffering from homelessness, “Sam”, and quickly helps him repair the denture. Photo by Audrey Cheng

“Tracy” has medical insurance, but the process for registrations, arranging visits and scheduling dental procedures can become quite complicated. Currently she needs to wait two months before her tooth can get extracted; she can’t wait any longer. Fortunately, someone informed her of Tzu Chi’s medical outreach event at the Salvation Army in September and she was able to solve this tooth problem quickly. Tracy took the opportunity to get rid of the tooth for free within a reasonable timeframe, and was very happy with the outcome.

After moving to the U.S. from China, “Jiang Hong” has been in the states for nearly four years suffering from the pain of a loose tooth. Without insurance and high dental expenses, Jiang could barely endure the pain from her toothache on a daily basis. That is until one day, Jiang went to the service center with a friend. A volunteer named Kay Wu informed them of the upcoming Tzu Chi medical outreach at the Salvation Army, services which would surely solve the toothache problem. Jiang repeatedly said, “I don’t have insurance!” To which Kay Wu responded, “No problem. When you go, it’s like going home to see family; we’ll take care of you!” Yes indeed, from entering the door to pulling out the troublesome tooth, every volunteer was cordial and courteous, and every doctor was highly skilled. Jiang was truly touched and filled out a volunteer application on the spot.

“Keno” rushed to register himself in advance for Tzu Chi’s dental care the day before the medical outreach event, but various life challenges rendered it difficult for him to receive the care that he needed. Keno has been sleeping in his car for four months. Working two jobs to stay afloat, he works at the IHOP restaurant during the day and at the Hard Rock Cafe on his days off. 

Keno was greatly concerned that his schedule would restrict him from making the outreach service hours after work. He asked a volunteer to allow him to be half an hour late for service provision. With the patient’s well-being in mind, the volunteer agreed and Keno was very appreciative of this volunteer’s flexibility. To show his gratitude, Keno helped volunteers unload equipment and supplies, and helped clean service areas. As anticipated, Keno was late on the day of the outreach, but arrived to the service center much later than expected. He anxiously rushed inside with tears in his eyes. Volunteers had no choice but to pack the equipment, supplies, and archived medical records before Keno was able to make it. 

Fortunately, Dr. Phan Ngyuen was able to help him with his dental problems and completed the service. Dr. Phan Ngyuen shared his story of being a Vietnamese refugee while cleaning his teeth. Feeling grateful from the bitterness from Dr. Phan Nguyen’s story, Keno said, “The doctor didn’t have to tell me his story, but he tried to motivate me to stay optimistic. I’m very happy!”

Transforming Pain into Lasting Smiles, Clear Vision, and Love

At the opening ceremony for the outreach event, Dr. Phan Nguyen introduced each member of the team, one by one, thanking both his dental team and Dr. Karen Hsueh vision team for uniting forces for this medical outreach event. The importance of both personal and communal health was emphasized. 

As our behind-the-scenes hero for medical outreach events in Las Vegas, Executive Vice President of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation Steven Voon shares insight: “This is what should be done! There are Western medicine, Chinese acupuncture and dental care [services] in the US. As for vision care, it is currently available in Los Angeles, Fresno, New York, and now newly added Las Vegas. I’m really proud of everyone.” Having traveled between Fresno and Las Vegas many times, he also acknowledged the Las Vegas volunteer team for their hard work and solidarity — within just a few months, they made their dream come true. From now on, there will always be a vision mobile clinic in Las Vegas.

As winds caused the temperature to drop, volunteers gathered the second-hand winter clothing they prepared in advance and gently put them over the shoulders of those still waiting in line. Seeing their eyes fill with tears and gratitude, the volunteers gave the soon-to-be patients a big warm hug. A picture like this is worth a thousand words, as if they are saying, “Tzu Chi’s unconditional love is spread around the world; let’s join hands from Las Vegas to places where people need most!”

Government and charity organizations rarely consider the provision of expensive dental services, that is until Tzu Chi’s outreach efforts. Photo by Audrey Cheng
Tzu Chi volunteers give back to the community and take care of vulnerable groups who live in a so called “City of Lights”, but are left behind in the dark. Photo by Audrey Cheng