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Tzu Chi Celebrates 10 Years in Las Vegas

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Tzu Chi Celebrates 10 Years in Las Vegas
Love in the World
Environmental Mission that Never Sleeps
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Las Vegas is famous as the capital of gambling in the western world. Its neon lights are never dim and its wheels of fortune spin without end. The eyes of the gamblers are glued to the table and their only thought is to win. Nothing else matters in their lives.

But, in another part of the city, there is a different world. In the East Flamingo Library, on October 24, 2012, the lights came on and a group of people in blue and white uniforms gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tzu Chi in the city.

The branch officially opened its doors on November 19, 2002, with the warm blessings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen who called it "a surprise lotus blooming in the Gambling City". Over the last 10 years, the volunteers have helped many people -- they organized a grocery backpack distribution in the 'Happy Campus' program, visit a Blind and Retirement Center, distribute hot meals at a homeless shelter and do recycling. Through this decade of effort, the volunteers have impressed many Las Vegas residents.

In recognition of this, U.S. House of Representative Shelly Berkley sent her office manager, Tod Story, to give a speech at the anniversary and present an award. Mr Story warmly praised four missions and eight footprints of the foundation and passed on the very best wishes of Representative Berkley.

The evening began with a sign language performance by members of the foundation’s U.S. headquarters of the song "Free". Their beautiful lyrics and graceful choreography captured the imagination of the audience. Then the lights were turned off and a video "Today in History" was played; it described the foundation’s work in Las Vegas over the past 10 years.

It had a tragic prelude. In 1999, a professor and a group of his students from Taiwan National Chung Cheng University had a fatal car accident in Death Valley; four people died and one was seriously injured. Tzu Chi had no office in Las Vegas, so volunteers came from Los Angeles and Phoenix to care for the students and their families. The graduate student who was seriously injured was hospitalized for more than four months; he was taken care of by a group of caring Las Vegas volunteers. Many became founding members of Tzu Chi office in the city.

As an intersection of major highway routes, Las Vegas is plagued by severe traffic accidents. For the victims and their families, Las Vegas is no paradise but a place of sorrow. Fortunately, Tzu Chi volunteers are there to provide a pit stop for their sad journey and support them to recover from the trauma and return to a normal life.

In March 2003, a Taiwanese tourist, Chen Dao-ming, was visiting his sister in Los Angeles. His family has arranged it as a happy holiday for him, but it turned out to be his final destination. At the time, there were few Chinese groups in Las Vegas; his family asked for help through a subscribers’ list of the North American Chinese Cable station. After many dead ends, someone called volunteer Cheng Ru-jing, who rushed to the hospital at 9 p.m. Chen had been losing blood continuously for four hours; the doctors had missed the chance to save him immediately because the family members with him had difficulties communicating in English.

When the family decided to end his life support, Tzu Chi volunteers – who had little experience – decided to support the family in arranging the funeral. Chen Zhen-he played the role of a "model" to try on the clothing to be put on the deceased: Liu Ching-mei, Lee Kun-hwah, Lin Qiu-lan, Yang Shu-mei and others delivered meals to the family and took turns in accompanying them to the hospital: Zheng Ru-jing contacted the funeral homes and arranged a remembrance ceremony, as well as making the complex procedures to repatriate the body of Chen to Taiwan.

Due to time constraints, the director of the Health Agency was "invited" from his vacation to sign the death certificate; with the request from the family, the volunteers even held a "soul-calling" ceremony in the MGM casino – the security guards assisted the family and volunteers to clear the space and made sure the ceremony went well. Chen Zhen-he also chanted daily sutras for him after his passing.

Chen’s wife became Tzu Chi's recycling volunteer after going back to Taiwan and his daughter Chen Wen-cai is training as a certified Tzu Chi commissioner. His story was used in a play and made into a featured story in "Recycling Volunteers" on Da Ai TV; it has become famous among in Tzu Chi volunteers and supporters in Taiwan.

A Handwritten Thank-You Note from Afar

To show the appreciation of the family, his daughter Chen Wen-cai hand-wrote a letter which was read out at the anniversary.

Dear family in Las Vegas, I hope you are well!

I am Chen Wen-cai. I was overwhelmed by emotion as I sat down to write this letter. My tears kept flowing and my heart ached. I had no idea how to completely express our family's gratitude. Back in the days when my father was visiting his family in the U.S., he took a trip to Vegas on his way back. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack. After all these years, I remember him and I remember the Vegas' Tzu Chi volunteers who helped us. I know there were many people who helped us. Before that, I used to donate to Tzu Chi occasionally and received publications about it, but I never took the time to learn about it. I never thought that our family would be in any kind of difficulty. Only after my father's passing did I realize that there are many things that money cannot buy.

Before writing this letter, I flipped over publications and photos from the past ... and some books my father brought back from his trip in Hualien, about two weeks before he died. I remember him telling me: "Tzu Chi's vegetarian food was fantastic! And the Jing Si aphorisms really make sense!" He even showed me some sign language he learnt. Thinking back, he had had an affinity with Tzu Chi long ago. Although it pains me to lose him, I feel that he was a very fortunate man. Because, on his last journey in life, even though his own children could not be beside him, he had so many kind people sending him off, even though he had never met them before.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I read the articles sent by Ru-jing -- so many volunteers' names, so much paperwork. Fellow volunteers cared for my dying father, my panicking mother and us in Taiwan, arranged for the funeral -- "soul calling" – and did a great deal of paperwork for his return. They have helped us so selflessly and tirelessly. My mother was so comforted in her deep sorrow of losing her loved one. Even now she cries whenever she sees the sunset. I am grateful for our adorable and cheerful Ru-jing who always comes to visit us whenever she is in Taiwan.

Since my father died, my mother pledged to be a Tzu Chi recycling volunteer. She started by collecting one truckload of recyclables a month and now collects three truckloads. At 72, she is still dedicated to the cause. Every time people ask her: "Aren't you getting too old to be collecting recyclables?" she smiles and replies: "The more I do it, the more healthier I am!" But I know she wants to repay the Tzu Chi volunteers who have helped us.

I started to get to know Tzu Chi and got involved with them the same year. I started collecting donations even though I was not yet in training. But I know that is my path, so I will take bigger steps towards it. Also my second daughter is now studying in the Tzu Chi College of Technology. Every time we speak on the phone, she shares with me her life in school. My sister is also a Tzu Chi volunteer and her son Zi-han is in Tzu Chi's basketball team for youth. She often attends the humanity classes and urges me to attend. She is more diligent than I.

Dear fellow volunteers, brothers and sisters, I thank you again. You are the bodhisattvas in the world, always thinking about others and constantly helping them. I will take my gratitude and use it to emulate your work, honor my parents and do good.

Always Believe that There is "Love in the World"

After sharing many stories about love and compassion, the Las Vegas choir sang the song "Love in the World". With their angelic voices, the volunteers supported and brought blind friends on stage. Everyone was dressed in different outfits but sang in perfect harmony to express their gratitude:



Love in the World
(Music by Wu Yu-bai; Lyrics by Yao Ruo-long)

Thank you for giving me such a warm embrace
Staying by my side when I feel sad
Now my heart's full of love, I won't bend in the wind
Lend my shoulder for people to cry on
Sincerely I give you an understanding smile
Staying by your side to end your worries
Just when you raise your head and your tears flow no more
Oh, how it moves my heart
I know there's love in this world that's worth waiting for
Closed hearts will open up eventually
Wounds will heal when we forgive, doubts will vanish when we care
Trust is the most moving love


Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Perhaps it was because of her foresight that many people are still inspired today by these words to provide continuous support to the blind around them.

Since the establishment of the Center for the Blind in Las Vegas’ old urban area on 1001 N. Bruce Street, members of the Leo Club and other private association have been providing free lunches to about 70 blind people on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Due to a lack of funds, only Taco chips were served on Wednesdays, which became synonymous with the rumbling sound of an empty stomach. Many of the members of the center are financially challenged; so they can only have one meal a day and on Wednesdays, they had to go hungry.

After learning of this situation, Gao Cui-ling, who works in the Las Vegas sector of Tzu Chi International Medical Association, started mobilizing Tzu Chi volunteers to take part in a program at the Center for the Blind. Every first and third Wednesdays of the month, the volunteers provide lunch meals at the center. They also organize monthly birthday celebrations. They prepare birthday cakes and presents and sing happily together to celebrate the happy days. The birthday boys and girls are all moved to tears; they are grateful for the loving company of the volunteers.

Since April 2007, the volunteers in Las Vegas have been going to the center every fortnight without fail, preparing lunch for the blind. Every three months, they also assist a caring podiatry physician, Dr. Merck, in helping the blind trim their toe nails. Since many lost their sight from diabetes, it is necessary for them to receive prompt foot and leg care in order to avoid amputation. Dr. Merck has been quietly providing his services at the center for 23 years, to show his care. The volunteers first help the blind wash and soak their feet to soften their toenails; this eases the doctor’s job of trimming the toenails and keeps the feet healthy and comfortable. After Dr. Merck finishes trimming the toenails, the volunteers transform themselves into foot-care angels. They massage the feet and wipe them clean: they apply skin care ointment and, finally, help the blind put on their socks and shoes before assisting them to stand and escorting them back to their seats. The residents always look forward to the "gentle feet cleansing day" once every three months. Solomon, one of the residents, said: “it feels like paradise!”

Veronica Wilson, chief supervisor of the Blind Center of Nevada, came in person to the anniversary celebration. She stepped up to the stage and gave a speech and a thank-you letter. “I sincerely hopes that Tzu Chi's care for the past six years will continue for the decades to come,” she said.


Environmental Mission that Never Sleeps

The Recycling Project started in Las Vegas in 2006, under the leadership of volunteer Chen Zhen-he. Huang Bao-zhen and Lin Bi-tao had the idea that a steaming hot meal of lunch would attract recycling volunteers; it received a strong response and tens of volunteers came. The recycling group became the hottest team in Las Vegas. Since the World Times Chinese newspaper management team came on board, the volunteers have collected many old newspapers, which brought in a sharp increase in recycling revenue. More importantly, the volunteers raised the environmental and sustainability awareness among the people of Las Vegas; this cannot be measured by monetary value.

The volunteers moved towards mainstream society; apart from driving around designated collection stations, they occasionally formed teams to clean the streets of local communities and recycle the waste. They also adopted national parks where this is not done by the government. The Lake Mead National Recreational Area cleaning program has been going on for two years. This has received an excellent response; patrol guards and tourists all admire the volunteers' work in conserving Mother Nature.

On December 22, 2009, Tzu Chi volunteers made their first visit to Mr Li Qin-kui and his wife. On the table there were three sets of bowls and chopsticks: one of them had a bowl of sweet rice ball dessert in front of their son's picture. The young man was smiling brightly in the photo, while the two old people wept at the table. Mrs Li sobbed: "he was born in the winter, so we named him Dong Er (the son of winter). Today we celebrate the first day of winter with him." Their son died young because of a blocked artery. The old couple who lost their son did not know English, had no friends and lived alone with their daughter; they were locked in their pain. The visiting volunteers noticed that Mr Li was limping and observed a dark, swollen infection on his thigh. Fortunately, the son of volunteer Cen Hui-yee son was a surgeon who happened to be visiting from New York. He cured Mr Li's wounds just in time. Mr Li said: “thank you for coming to cure me from New York and giving me medicine. I can't believe there are such kind people!” The volunteers replied: “thank you for giving us this chance to give.”

After three years, Mr and Mrs Li accepted the advice of the volunteers and came out of their pain-filled home. They volunteered in recycling and other charity projects in the Tzu Chi office once or twice a week. Mr Li said: "recycling is such an important project, why is the local government not promoting it? Thankfully, we have Master Cheng Yen actively promoting it and I am so happy to be part of this meaningful work at this stage of my life."
In time, their tears went away, to be replaced by smiles. When a volunteer ran over and said "hug me!", the reserved couple slowly accepted the warmth of Tzu Chi and responded in kind. Mrs Li said: "Tzu Chi is my home and the fellow volunteers are my closest family!"

Mr Li is now 80 years old but, in the Las Vegas recycling team, he is only the third oldest. He said jokingly: "the 93-year-old is the oldest, 82-year-old Mr Zai is the second oldest and I am just the third. But don't take it wrong, I am not the 'Little Third (slang for a someone who's a third party sabotaging a relationship)'. There's no age limit for recycling work, we welcome everyone to the family! Come step on the bottles and cans with us and enjoy the happiest sound of music!"

Later on, their "family" came on stage at the celebration and performed the sign language song “Love and Care for All”; many were local American volunteers. The audience applauded warmly.

When the music for the prayer song sounded, the audience showed a reluctance for the ceremony to end. This ceremony of appreciation was more than just a grade report which the volunteers presented to their community, it was also a feast of humanistic culture and music. It purified everyone's hearts from greed, fear and bad habits, encouraging the hesitant to take the leap and start doing good and show filial love and respect to their parents. Tzu Chi volunteers are grateful for the long-term support from the community in carrying their mission to purify the city of sin. May Las Vegas be known for love and not gambling in the future.

(Written by Zheng Ru-jing and reported in Las Vegas USA on October 24, 2012)