It’s 8:00 a.m. on a Friday morning. Instead of sitting in a car braving the usual morning traffic on my way to the office, I find myself in the courtyard of Old Balara Elementary School. A white van is parked in front of the principal’s office, and Chinese characters are emblazoned in green along its side. Underneath the characters are the words Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation Phils.
I make my way across the courtyard to four ladies, all dressed in blue polo shirts with white collars, tucked into white pants with black belts and white shoes, their hair neatly pulled back into buns and held in place by blue ribbon clips bearing the Tzu Chi logo. White shoes and pants don’t seem like the most practical uniform for visiting slum areas, but this is what the Tzu Chi volunteers wear to all their activities, whether it’s attending meetings in their Quezon City office, or entering muddy disaster areas to provide relief goods.
JuD Lao—yes, the same JuD Lao who’s famous for her Christmas fruitcakes—waves me over with a smile, and introduces me to her fellow commissioners Stacy, Woon, and Elvira. Commissioners are certified volunteers who have completed training in Taiwan, where Tzu Chi Foundation was founded by Dharma Master Cheng Yen—a Buddhist nun who is considered the “Mother Teresa of Asia.” Volunteers who haven’t undergone this training wear gray instead of blue shirts.
“We have 32 households to visit today, so we’re going in 5 groups. You’ll be with Auntie Elvira,” JuD says. “She can tell you everything you need to know about our home visits.” Before I know it, I’m ushered into a van with three volunteers. Auntie Elvira hops into the front seat, and we’re off.
Navigating the side streets of Quezon City isn’t easy—after all, it’s not like the Tzu Chi beneficiaries’ addresses are on Waze. Our progress is slow but sure, with Elvira stopping the van every couple of blocks to roll down the window and ask for directions, referring to a hand-drawn map all the while.
“Do you want to see the case report?” she asks, passing me a clipboard. The file contains all of the beneficiary’s personal details—from his contact information and the type of assistance he received, to his family tree, income, and expenses. It also contains observations and notes from the volunteers who last visited him.
The first beneficiary we visit is Mang Beny*, who has been receiving money for respiratory medications. The report says he hasn’t been able to hold down a job since he easily runs out of breath, and cleans his neighbors’ cars for about P50. When we finally reach the tenement where he lives, we find a tall, bony man in his late 40s standing outside with a feather duster in hand. He leads us into his apartment, a narrow room just big enough to comfortably fit a bed, sink, stove, and television.
As soon as we’re seated, Elvira gets right down to business and looks through Mang Beny’s medications. She asks him a litany of questions: where he gets his food, what he eats everyday, what does for a living, where he gets the money to pay for water and electricity, who owns the apartment, how it was obtained, whether his roof is leaking, when his next medical checkup is, and where he goes for checkups, and whether he’s receiving assistance from any government or non-government organizations. She confirms whether Tzu Chi’s notes on his medical history are accurate, and whether the medicines have helped him get better. Mang Beny seems accustomed to this line of questioning, and answers her readily while the volunteers all take notes.
Tzu Chi commissioner Elvira interviews one of the organization's medical assistance beneficiaries
“Ba’t hindi ka kumuha ng social service assistance?” Elvira asks, when Mang Beny tells her his sister takes him to the Lung Center of the Philippines.
“Masyadong mahaba ang pila,” Mang Beny tells her.
“Tiyaga lang iyan,” she says in an admonishing tone. “Isang beses ka lang gigising at pipila nang maaga, tapos magtanong ka kung anong mga requirement para sa social service ID, para makakuha ka rin ng assistance. Mag-apply ka sa PhilHealth bilang indigent. Hindi mo kailangang magbayad bilang indigent. ”
She reminds him that beneficiaries are expected to personally attend Tzu Chi’s Charity Day, instead of sending relatives to collect their money for them.
“Kaya mo naman eh,” she tells Mang Beny. “Nakakalakad ka naman, hindi ka nakaconfine sa hospital. Imbis na pupunta yung kapatid mo, humingi ka sa kanya ng pamasahe. Kailangan makita namin na ikaw ang recipient. Kaya hindi kita nakilala kanina, kasi hindi kita nakikita sa Charity Day. Kailangan naming makita yung kondisyon mo. At marami kang matututunan sa mga doktor. Nagbibigay sila ng mga talk tungkol sa kung paano mo maaalagaan ang kalusugan mo. Kung kaya mong maglinis ng kotse, kaya mong pumunta sa Tzu Chi.”
All the volunteers must take notes, regardless of who's doing the interview
The rest of our home visits follow the same pattern. It’s a lot like a census or lifestyle check, and Elvira certainly doesn’t put up with any nonsense—she calls out a housewife keeps on giving different answers to the same questions. “How can we know how to help you if you’re not honest with us?” she says in Filipino. By giving the beneficiaries a little tough love, she teaches them how to help themselves.
To reach the last household, we pick our way through a dark, narrow alley that reeks of sewage and laundry soap. At the end of the alley is a small courtyard, where we meet an eighteen year-old girl surrounded by washing tubs. As she does the laundry, her five year-old brother bounces her baby on his knee. She claims their mother is away working at a mall in Tagaytay.
Her 24 year-old brother Allan* has been receiving medications for tubercolosis. However, he hasn’t gotten better, and shows Elvira the resulting lump on his back.
“You didn’t get well because you didn’t take your medicine continuously,” Elvira says in Filipino. “You can get free medication from PGH for six months, and then when you get well you can find a job. Think of your family, think of your sister’s baby. If you don’t get treated, you can infect them.”
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we finally make our way back to Old Balara Elementary School. There, Elvira hands out reassessment forms for each volunteer to fill out, and I’m startled as she hands me one too. The first page of the form contains tables where we can update information about the beneficiary’s contact information, assistance received, sources of income, etc. The third page is for us to write an essay containing any observations that didn’t fit on the first page. The second page asks whether we recommend continuing or discontinuing assistance, and why, and whether another home visit should be made or whether the case should be closed.
Once we’re done filling out the forms, we discuss each case one by one. One of the volunteers suspects that Allan and his siblings aren’t telling the whole truth. “How can their mother get to Tagaytay with just P150?” she asks.
“Yes, she probably abandoned them,” another agrees. “And Allan probably didn’t ask for medicine because he was shy to admit he had TB.”
After going through each case, the entire group has to agree on our recommendations. “Think about it well. You’ll have to defend your decision to Tzu Chi’s social workers,” Elvira reminds the volunteers. “I’m just here to train you, but you have to decide.”
Once a decision is made, everyone signs the reassessment report. The person who filled it out has to leave their contact details next to their signature. This is because later on, the commissioners and social workers of Tzu Chi will meet to discuss and deliberate on each case. If they have any questions or clarifications, they will call the volunteer who filled out the reassessment form.
The purpose of this entire exercise is for Tzu Chi members to be able to personally see how the beneficiary is doing, and whether they still need assistance. The reason they ask so many questions is to make sure the beneficiary isn’t pretending to be poorer or sicker than they really are to receive more money than they really need. “We have to be compassionate, but we also have to be wise,” Elvira tells me.
Over the years, Tzu Chi has grown into a multinational organization, with 50 offices all over the world. Their missions range from disaster relief and environmental protection to medical missions and livelihood programs, but their funds aren’t limitless—they need to make sure their resources are allocated to the people who need them most. They even encourage their own beneficiaries to donate, by giving them a tin in which they can donate whatever amount they choose.
The same housewife Elvira berated proudly pulled out her own tin, saying that it was almost full. As counterintuitive as it sounds, encouraging the poor to give what they can gives them dignity. It isn’t always necessarily money—the organization teaches the rich and poor alike to give whatever they can, whether it’s their time, resources, or knowledge and skills. In fact, some of the Tzu Chi volunteers are also beneficiaries.
“In Tzu Chi Foundation we say that doing charity is not the privilege of the rich,” JuD says. “Hindi lang ang mayaman ang pwedeng mag-charity, but the poor should be given the chance to do charity. If the poor keep on begging for goods, what we wish is for them to be the ones to give to others. So that if you give to others, that means to say you are now having a good life. We don’t only give, we encourage them to be the ones to give because that’s the time umalis ka sa realm of [being] kawawa.”
“They’re not dictating how much. If you have 25 centavos, that’s what you have,” adds Tzu Chi volunteer Nana Nadal. “What’s interesting is a lot of them enjoy it, because there’s happiness in giving.”
*Name changed to protect subject’s privacy.