There’s an old parlor trick that proves a simple point about the value of teamwork. You hand someone a pencil and ask them to break it in two. They can usually snap it without too much effort. Then you hand them six pencils with a rubber band around them and ask them to try it again. They can’t break them. The same principle applies to people as well as pencils; combined strength is greater than the sum of its parts.
Since 1998, the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) has relied on its volunteers to deliver free medical and dental services to well over 2 million patients in 48 countries up to 2014 at Tzu Chi’s free clinics and community outreach missions. The patients include poor, underprivileged and underserved populations from six continents including the victims of natural disasters.
In 2014, TIMA missions served nearly 20,000 patients across the U.S. and in Haiti, free of charge. Another major international mission has been in operation since late 2013 in the Philippines, where multiple teams from Taiwan have gone to address the needs of thousands after a devastating typhoon.
As the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation approaches its 22nd anniversary, members from around the country are gathering in San Dimas, CA to attend the conference. Participants come to exchange information about their operations, identify and refine best practices, and to map out the future of the Association. While each representative brings their own knowledge and experience to the conference, there’s one thing common to all of them: the source of their strength is volunteers.
Their ranks include members of all religions, and those who are not religious. Most are female, and their average age is 60. No matter their age, gender or level of experience, every volunteer has something to contribute and each additional participant makes the organization and the mission stronger.
“My background is finance, I have no medical background at all. But we believe in what we are doing,” said Steve Voon, Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation.
Voon began volunteering in 2002, and helped to establish regular medical outreach services to California’s Central Valley and its large population of migrant farm workers. Voon’s wife, Olivia Chung, and their two young daughters also volunteer. It’s a family affair and a tradition of giving they are proud to pass down.
Good health is often described one of the greatest gifts in life, and sharing that gift is meaningful to both the givers and the recipients. Dr. Walter Fung, a volunteer doctor at the Fresno clinic for the past three years, described his reasons for taking part,
“I love medicine because I love life. And I found that just like everyone else, they can be struck by cancer. I had it twice. That’s what brought me here, the sense that I’ve got to do something for other people.”
Former patients are also among the volunteers. “I saw the way the doctors were interacting with the patients and they showed real concern for the people and that touched my heart. So yeah, I want to volunteer, I want to be a part of what the organization is doing,” said Delia Esqueda, a local resident. Richard Furze, a volunteer doctor, put it succinctly, “It’s so pleasurable to give, and Tzu Chi offered that opportunity to me. And our differences in culture mean nothing, it’s the heart [that matters].”
They are currently expanding their outreach to more nearby communities, digitizing their 15,000 patient files and updating their computer systems to be able to process their records in seconds, so that more time is spent actually delivering medical services. And more volunteers are always needed and welcome.
If you have computer skills, that’s great. Bring it on. If you can make balloon animals to entertain kids who are waiting for treatment with their parents, then that’s okay, too. And they can always use more hands to help load and unload the trucks and set up and break down the temporary clinics. All you really need to join is the desire to help.