My Experience with The Flood Relief Mission in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
by Kah Loong Chong
I remembered reading a piece of article in the Tzu Chi magazine when I was 15. The article recounted the experience of a middle-aged lady who had lost her one and only son. After the incident, she became so devastated and one day, while she was wandering aimlessly on the road, she was run down by a car. She was hospitalized soon after and it was during her stay in the hospital that she met Master Cheng Yen. Having great compassion, Master Cheng Yen explained to her that the love she had for her son was a form of selfish love. The only way for her to stop lamenting over her loss was to turn this selfish love into selfless love where you dedicate your life to help those in need without expecting anything in return. Touched by the words of Master Cheng Yen, she finally decided to become a full time Tzu Chi volunteer to bring hope into the lives of others. When I read this piece of article, I kept wondering, is there such a thing called ‘selfless love’? However, my experience with the flood relief mission in Cedar Rapids had shown me that selfless love does exist in this world.
The flood at Cedar Rapids, Iowa had left more than 4000 families homeless. Victims of the flood had to stay in a motel, stay with their family members and relatives or in worst case scenario, had no place to stay at all. To help alleviate their suffering, Tzu Chi had allocated $2 million for this flood relief mission. Each family was given a debit card worth $300, $500 or $800 depending on their situation and also a blanket, which was completely made out from recycled water bottles, to serve as a wake-up call and a timely reminder for them to start taking care of the environment.
Time, distance and money did not hinder Tzu Chi volunteers from getting involved in the flood relief mission. The flood occurred in Cedar Rapids, Iowa but our volunteers came from all parts of the country, from Ohio State, Missouri, California and many more. I, for instance, came from Ann Arbor, Michigan. We spent our own money for food, lodging and transportation. Some volunteers even booked a flight just for this flood relief mission. It was such a touching moment. This was indeed the manifestation of selfless love and compassion. We were like candles, burning ourselves to bring light and hope to the flood victims.
Throughout my four day stint at Cedar Rapids, I had been involved in a variety of task. I had served as an interviewer to handle the intake and registration, a runner to deliver blankets and debit cards to the interviewers, a general labor to help carry and move things around and an assistant to Joe to deliver ice and cooking utensils at night to the Shr Gus, who were preparing meals for the volunteers. Each task felt so alive and meaningful because I knew I was helping the flood victims and our fellow volunteers in one way or another. Working in the registration area enabled me to meet the flood victims directly, talked to them at a more personal level and of course, helped them directly by giving them the debit cards and the blankets. As a general labor and an assistant to Joe, I helped the volunteers to clear unwanted stuff, load heavy items into the truck and ensure that meals were prepared on time. The flood relief work in Iowa was probably the most meaningful weekend I ever had. If someone were to ask me whether I am willing to do it again for the next two to three weekends, my answer would definitely be a yes. It is true that I had to spend my own time and money for the flood relief work but it was not the money that counts, it was the joy and satisfaction that I got from helping those in need that really matters. A smile or just a simple ‘thank you’ from the victims was already enough for me to get involved in such missions over and over again.
I would also love to share some of the touching moments during the flood relief mission. I was so touched when I saw one volunteer, clad in grey uniform, working tirelessly to move heavy things around and load/unload stuff from the truck. It gave me great pleasure to help him as a general labor. I was so touched when the flood victims gave the Tzu Chi volunteers a standing ovation when we first reached the relief center. It gave me great pleasure to repay their kind gesture. Two flood victims whom I interviewed broke down in tears when I consoled them and handed them the debit cards and the blankets because they were so touched by what our volunteers did for them. The man even asked me this: “Why are you doing this?” And my reply: “I believe we are all inter-connected in one way or another. We can feel for others and now that I am given the opportunity to help the flood victims, I will definitely take up the responsibility. Sir, it is my pleasure to help you and it gives me an even greater pleasure to know that you now have the resources to start a new life.” Another flood victim by the name Brandy, was so touched when I told her that the volunteers paid for their own lodging, food and transportation. She told me that she ought to show the volunteers some appreciation. True enough, the following day, Brandy came back with 4 cans of green tea, two bags of chocolate and two white cakes with these words on them: “One hand works as 1000 hands and one eye sees as 1000 eyes”. These words truly reflect the spirit of Tzu Chi where each volunteer plays a pivotal role in the team and when the collaborative strength of these individual volunteers is pooled together, we can change the world. One for all and all for one!
The journey from Ann Arbor to Cedar Rapids took 7 hours and the journey from Courtyard Inn to the relief center took about an hour and a half per trip but it was all worth it because at the end of the day, I knew I had made a difference in the lives of others. I am so proud to be part of the Tzu Chi flood relief team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.