Project Disaster Reduction for Six Schools

Tzu Chi’s Project Disaster Reduction has undertaken to construct new buildings to replace aged or damaged ones at 26 schools in Taiwan, including six in Hualien County. After 18 months, the work at these six schools was completed, and Tzu Chi turned the new buildings over to the schools in October 2017.

On the morning of October 24, 2017, things seemed a little different from usual at the gate of Guo Feng Junior High School in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. Teachers from the school and students in scout uniforms greeted their counterparts arriving on school buses from Ming Yih, Chung Yuan, and Jia Min elementary schools, and Hua Ren and Yuli junior high schools. Some distinguished guests rounded out the crowd that day.

Tzu Chi had launched a project to rebuild dangerous buildings for 26 schools in Taiwan. On this day, a ceremony was being held at Guo Feng to officially turn over completed buildings to six schools in Hualien.

Even the weather added to the event—the rain and dark clouds that had persisted for several days were gone. The bright sunny day at hand seemed to reflect the cheerfulness and high spirits of the occasion.

The recorder orchestra of Guo Feng Junior High School performs at a ceremony during which Tzu Chi turned over newly constructed buildings to six schools in Hualien.

The ceremony

The Ming Yih Elementary School string orchestra kicked off the ceremony with a performance of the finale of St Paul’s Suite, by the British composer Gustav Theodore Holst. The choice of the composer and music was very deliberate for the occasion.

Teacher Li Rou-ling (李柔羚), who directs the orchestra at Ming Yih, explained that Holst was the director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, England, from 1905 to 1934. The suite was composed by Holst in gratitude to the school, which had built a soundproof studio for him.

Though the music had been written halfway around the world and a century before today’s event, the symbolism of the piece was clear. Tzu Chi had built a five-story building for Ming Yih, in which most of the space was dedicated to the performing arts. Li and her students played the finale of the suite to express their gratitude to the foundation, just as Holst had composed the music in gratitude to his school.

The performance by the Ming Yih Elementary School orchestra was followed by an equally moving performance by the Guo Feng Junior High School recorder orchestra, which had won first place at a national contest just the year before. Like Ming Yih Elementary School, Guo Feng Junior High had been in dire need of safe or adequate facilities. With Tzu Chi’s help, the school is now better able to carry out its mission to educate students.

A new five-story building stands tall on the campus of Ming Yih Elementary School, breathing new life into the nearly 80-year-old campus.

Dangerous classrooms

Compulsory education in Taiwan was extended from six years to nine in 1968. Many new schools, including Guo Feng Junior High, were built at that time to accommodate the influx of students.

Guo Feng has graduated nearly 30,000 students since the school first opened its doors half a century ago. Though low birth rates have shrunk the student population all over the island, Guo Feng, with almost 1,500 students, is the leader in Eastern Taiwan in number of classes and student enrollment.

Guo Feng’s principal, Zhong Yi-zhi (鍾宜智), is a Guo Feng alumnus who graduated in 1988. Zhong recalled his days at the school as a student and the problems that had most bothered him: water in the classroom during rainy season or after a heavy storm. His classroom was sometimes inundated with water as deep as halfway up his calf.

The land which the school now occupies once consisted of rice paddies and a swamp, which were drained and filled with dirt for the construction of the school. That was one reason why the campus was so susceptible to flooding. More serious than that was that the ground was sinking; subsidence over the years had reached more than 50 centimeters (20 inches).

One school building was skewed out of shape because of the sinking, causing all sorts of problems. People routinely bumped their heads when using first-floor stairwells, which later compelled school administrators to downgrade first-floor classrooms to storage space.

The distortions made for unsafe conditions and a horrible sight. Zhou Zhi-tong (周芷彤), a ninth grader, remembers thinking her old classrooms would tumble at any time and that walking on the uneven steps of the staircases was like stepping on waves of water.

Lin Min-chao (林敏朝), director of Tzu Chi’s construction department, could not believe his eyes when he saw the building. It was not even level, yet it was still in use. Lin found this amazing, especially since the sinking school was right in the middle of the city.

The administrators at Guo Feng, including the previous principal, Wu Bi-zhu (吳碧珠), had tried for years without luck to obtain funding to rebuild. She said that rebuilding costs had been estimated to be 200 million New Taiwan dollars (US$6.7 million). Given the financial constraints of the county government and the priorities assigned to schools competing for reconstruction funding, Wu estimated the wait time for Guo Feng to receive funding would be ten years or longer.

Over her eight-year tenure at Guo Feng, she had been very concerned about the safety of her school. She lived in constant fear of earthquakes, which are commonplace in Hualien. She could not bring herself to imagine the consequences of a strong earthquake during the day, when students were in school.

“When I felt an earthquake at night,” Wu said, “I sometimes wished that the temblor would take down my school. That way, funds would have to be allotted for rebuilding it.”

Tzu Chi’s Project Disaster Reduction gives primary consideration to safety, from design to construction. Every month professionals check up on engineering and construction, so that every student can learn without worry.

Old buildings couldn’t retire

Half a century ago, earthquake resistance was not something that architects thought much about when designing buildings. Many school buildings constructed to accommodate the influx of students as a result of the extended compulsory education featured exterior corridors without pillars for support, or exterior walls that included many windows. Structural weaknesses in terms of earthquake resistance were commonplace back then.

Even worse, some schools simply added floors on top of existing buildings when they needed more room. Stacking extra floors on existing structures was less expensive than building new buildings from the ground up, so in an age of scarce funds, this was a path of least resistance.

When a big temblor shook Taiwan on September 21, 1999, several hundred schools on or near fault lines in the western half of Taiwan were toppled or badly damaged. On the eastern side of the island, where the quake was weaker, many schools, including the six schools featured in this article, suffered less damage. As a result, many aged school buildings in this area continued to be used.

The central and local governments were all aware that the old buildings were not strong enough to withstand the force of earthquakes, but they were unable to do much about it, not quickly anyway. Even though the budget for school building improvements was limited, it wasn’t too small—it was just that so many structures needed improvements. The problem simply dwarfed the budget.

Lin Ming-hui (林明輝), an official at the K-12 Education Administration at the Ministry of Education, pointed out that the central government had schools in Taiwan inspected by the National Center for Research on Earthquake Engineering (NCREE) after the 921 Earthquake to identify structures that would not likely withstand future earthquakes. Over the last eight years alone, 47 billion New Taiwan dollars (US$1.57 billion) were spent on rebuilding or reinforcing dangerous school buildings identified by the NCREE. That expenditure, though quite sizeable, has unfortunately been just a drop in a bucket.

In the 125 elementary and junior high schools in Hualien County, over 200 buildings were recommended by the NCREE to be rebuilt or reinforced.

Reinforcement, including enlarging columns and installing steel-reinforced concrete wing walls and shear walls, costs just one tenth as much as rebuilding and takes just one tenth the time to complete. Yet some buildings needed more than reinforcement; even with earthquake-resistant enhancements, some buildings still fell short of the required quake resistance. These structures remained in the queue for rebuilding and were projected to be there for at least ten years, if not 20, before it was their turn to be rebuilt. The waiting line was very long.

That was an unsettling situation, not something any concerned citizen could bear to see and not take action. After all, the lives of children were at stake.

Tzu Chi construction commissioners and construction department personnel inspect a school building under construction. They make sure the workmanship of each building under Project Disaster Reduction is up to par.

Shrinking the queue

After learning of the situation, Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, decided to help. In 2014, the foundation initiated Project Disaster Reduction, whose goal was to help improve dangerous school buildings. It subsequently underwrote the construction of new buildings in 26 schools in Pingtung, Kaohsiung, Taitung, Hualien, and Miaoli counties. This was the largest campus rebuilding project the foundation had undertaken since Project Hope, an endeavor Tzu Chi embarked on to rebuild schools badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1999.

According to Tsai Ping-Kun (蔡炳坤), CEO of the Tzu Chi Education Mission, the main point of Project Disaster Reduction is prevention. It is much better to prevent a disaster than to engage in disaster relief. This is especially important in Taiwan, an area prone to earthquakes and typhoons.

Yen Po-wen (顏博文), CEO of the Tzu Chi Charity Mission, admitted that the project was not without its critics, but Master Cheng Yen had held firm. “The future of our country rests on our children,” Yen said. “It’s vital that we give them safe places to learn.”

Safety, environmental friendliness, and functionality are among the primary principles that guide all Tzu Chi construction projects. This disaster reduction project originated from the fear of destruction from earthquakes, so the project has paid extra attention to the quake-resistant ability of the buildings it has undertaken to build. “The government-mandated safety factor for buildings is 1, but Tzu Chi demands all school buildings it helps rebuild attain a safety factor of 1.2,” said Hu Sheng-yong (胡勝勇), from Tzu Chi’s construction department. “We strengthen the buildings even further if the school is situated near a fault line.”

The buildings in this project are not just strong but also environmentally friendly. For example, rain collection systems are installed to supply water to irrigate the landscape and flush the toilets. Buildings are designed to optimize natural lighting and ventilation.

Take the multi-purpose activity center built for Yuli Junior High for example. Two walls feature ample windows, which, coupled with vents on the roof, allow hot air to quickly escape the building. The design leaves the interior cool even without air conditioning, which the building does not have.

There is another feature worth mentioning about this activity center: A railway runs right past it. To dampen the noise from passing trains, the side of the building facing the railroad was made windowless and the wall thickened. That relieved a problem that had plagued the old gymnasium that used to sit on this site. Back then, when someone was giving a speech in the gymnasium, his or her words were often drowned out by passing trains.

In addition to the thoughtful design of the buildings, the quality of construction and workmanship has been assured by Tzu Chi construction commissioners. Each month they visit the schools still under construction to ensure that the contractors have done their work according to the blueprints. They also help solve problems encountered during the building process.

Wang Ming-de (王明德) has volunteered as a construction commissioner for 33 years. He began in 1984, when Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital was under construction. He commented that when it came to inspecting a building, “the higher up it is, the easier it is for quality to slip, so we make a point of checking high places.” Though he is getting up in years, he’s still quite healthy and often goes with other construction commissioners and Tzu Chi construction department staffers to examine construction in progress. They go high and low to check and ensure that the construction crew has carried out every fine detail according to the design and Tzu Chi standards.

“I actually go to the construction sites of my own company less often than I do Tzu Chi sites.” Wang said with a chuckle. “After all, I’ve turned my company business over to my children and my employees. Yet I check on every building that Tzu Chi is constructing, at my own expense and on my own time. This is more like my full-time job.”

Tzu Chi construction commissioners are all loving entrepreneurs like Wang. They care more about their volunteer work than about their personal businesses, and they do much more than inspecting and consulting.

For example, a music hall at a school under Project Disaster Reduction had been completed, but it was just a bare concrete shell with no acoustic equipment. The school would have had to wait another year to submit a budget for the equipment, but one of the dozen or so construction commissioners on the project happened to be an expert on acoustics. When he learned about the school’s situation, he decided to pay for the equipment himself. Another commissioner did a similar thing except that this time it was for curtains. At yet another school, the playground was old and dilapidated and looked out of place on the rebuilt campus. In response, several commissioners pooled their money together and spruced up the playground.

A teacher and students at Jia Min Elementary School walk on a sidewalk made of interlocking pavement bricks in front of a new school building.

Accommodating their needs

Some of the schools in Project Disaster Reduction offer special curricula or extracurricular programs to their students. Tzu Chi does its best to accommodate the needs of the schools when constructing buildings for them.

For instance, Ming Yih Elementary School is well known for its performing arts curricula. It offers classes dedicated to cultivating students talented in music or dance. Tzu Chi built a five-story building at Ming Yih that houses, among other things, six ensemble classrooms, 22 small practice rooms, a dance classroom, and a concert hall.

“Students used to have to practice in a basement, which didn’t have a tall ceiling,” said dance teacher Huang Jun-wen (黃俊文). “They couldn’t jump as high as they wanted to. But now in this tall, new dance classroom, they can get as high as they want. When their bodies stretch upward as freely as they want, they look so beautiful.”

Over at Hua Ren Junior High School, Wu De-huan (吳德煥) teaches aboriginal dancing. He has coached and led the school aboriginal dance team to national championships. Despite the need for an indoor space for activities such as dance practice or sports during rainy days, the school never had such a facility in all of its 18 years in existence. Now thanks to Project Disaster Reduction, a new building is available for them to dance indoors. They quickly found an occasion to use it. The dance team had been scheduled to perform during the inauguration ceremony mentioned at the beginning of this article, so the dancers needed to rehearse. Though it rained nonstop during the days leading up to the ceremony, the team happily practiced in the new multi-purpose building. “Were it not for the new building, they couldn’t possibly have practiced the way they did,” Wu commented. “We appreciate the help of the foundation.”

Tsai Ping-Kun, CEO of the Tzu Chi Education Mission, is happy to see the students at the recipient schools pursue their diverse interests. He hopes that each school, in addition to helping their students cultivate their talents and enhance their academic performance, can also work on nurturing their character.

Every brick and tile of the new school buildings was possible because of the donations of many loving people. The foundation hopes that the buildings will be like fertile soil for seedlings, supporting and sustaining every child as they pursue their dreams.


Help Them Shine

In the past, they lived in converted classrooms and on rainy days practiced soccer in the basement. Now they live comfortably in a dormitory, part of a new multi-purpose building that includes space to engage in different activities, including a basketball court and dance classrooms.

By Yang Shun-bin

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photos by Yan Lin-zhao

Don’t forget the classmates around you—they might become important companions on your journey in life,” said Huang Qi
(黃琦), an OB/GYN physician at Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, speaking at the commencement ceremony at Hua Ren Junior High School on June 16, 2017. He himself had been among the first batch of graduates from the school in 2002.

The graduation ceremony was being held in a new multi-purpose activity center Tzu Chi had built for the school under Project Disaster Reduction. When Huang was a student at Hua Ren, he thought that a new gymnasium would surely be built before he graduated, but the land slated for the gym had stayed vacant year after year, weeds growing unrestrained long after he had graduated.

He was very glad that a new activity center, and a nice one at that, was finally open to the students of his alma mater, presently enrolling about 360 students in 16 classes. Students and faculty had been dreaming of their own gym or activity center for 18 years.


Students at Hua Ren Junior High School dance in a properly equipped new classroom.

Athletes without a gym

Hua Ren Principal Liang Zhong-zhi (梁仲志) said that a gymnasium had been in the original budget when the school was founded, but during the construction of the school, a major earthquake struck on September 21, 1999, destroying many school buildings around Taiwan. Hua Ren was not damaged, but the budget for the gymnasium was moved elsewhere. Principals over the years had repeatedly requested that the gym budget be reinstated, but they had met with no success. The school had therefore been without a gym since its inception.

That was surprising—and perhaps a little painful—because the school was well-known in Hualien for nurturing excellent athletes. Hua Ren has a special curriculum for students who want to concentrate on athletics or sports. They compete well in track and field, baseball, and soccer. Zhang Bo-ya (張博雅), for example, finished second and third in the women’s 200-meter and 100-meter dash respectively at a national athletic contest for junior and senior high school students in 2017.

Other students have graduated from Hua Ren and gone on to become good professional athletes. Shao-Ching Chiang (江少慶) now pitches professionally for the Cleveland Indians in the United States, and Lin Guo-yu (林國裕) and Zheng Kai-wen (鄭鎧文) play professional baseball in Taiwan. They had all taken the athletics curriculum while in school at Hua Ren.

How did the school train and turn out so many good athletes without the benefit of a gymnasium? Where did they train on rainy days or during the annual monsoon?

When it rained, athletic students used hallways or basements to practice. Even then, they had to compete with students from social clubs and work out a schedule for use of the limited space. To add more covered space, the school had galvanized metal sheets installed between some classroom buildings—not quite ten meters (33 feet) apart—to serve as roofs under which students could exercise on rainy days.

None of those were ideal places for practice. The basements were poorly lit, and the confined space made people feel shut in. Worse, students coming in from the rain would invariably track in water on their shoes, and the terrazzo floors would become hazardously slippery. When the school soccer team practiced there, they had to control their kicks so that the balls would not break lights.

Athletic students typically lived on campus, but Hua Ren did not have a dormitory for them. Instead, they were put up in an old, unused classroom. All 30 of them lived in one classroom, like a military barracks, only worse.

“Those arrangements might have given the students fond memories after they left the school,” said Liu Yi-chuan (劉義傳), the school baseball team coach. “But they weren’t good for training.”

All this inadequacy would vanish once a new facility opened.

Hua Ren students gather in a three-story multi-purpose activity center that boasts a basketball court, dance classrooms, and a dormitory.

 A more ideal arrangement

Tzu Chi started the construction of a multi-functional activity center for Hua Ren in March 2016, as part of its Project Disaster Reduction. The three-story structure was completed in April 2017 and granted an occupancy permit in mid-June.

Just inside the building through the main entrance is the new basketball court, with unobstructed overhead space three stories high. This large space doubles as an auditorium for large crowds, so the school will no longer have to borrow the use of a nearby Hakka cultural center when they hold large events. An equipment room and a weight room are also on the first floor.

Access-controlled doors on either side of the building lead to spacious dance classrooms on the second floor and a dormitory for athletic students on the third floor.

In addition to the athletics curriculum, Hua Ren offers a special dance curriculum. Students taking the curriculum eagerly awaited the completion of the dance classrooms even while they were still under construction. According to Jiang Jia-jia  (蔣佳珈), director of academic affairs at the school, the three classes—for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders—used to share two poorly equipped classrooms converted from counseling offices, a far cry from ideal for the students. The new multi-purpose activity center now provides dance students properly equipped spaces in which to practice. Each grade even gets its own classroom.

The dance curriculum, now in its fourth year, enrolls 31 students, most of whom had no formal dance training before they came to Hua Ren. Folk dance teacher Hu Yi-hui (胡依慧) said that the kids had worked hard and built their way up from the very basics. Little by little, they had learned enough to perform smoothly through a piece.

Hu grew up in Hualien. As a young student, she experienced firsthand the extreme shortage of resources in the area for people who wanted to study dancing. After she graduated from the National Taiwan University of Arts in New Taipei City three years ago, she returned to her home county to help aspiring dance students. They remind her where she was a few years ago.

It was a struggle for Hu and the students at the outset, but the teacher did not lower the bar. Now the students are learning fast, and occasionally they can even improvise choreography during a piece.


With this new building, athletic students can now train indoors properly when it rains, and the school can hold large events without having to borrow the use of a nearby Hakka cultural center.

The soccer program

The student dorm on the third floor has a capacity for 36 athletic students. On August 18, 2017, 30 athletes moved in, five to a room. That is a far better arrangement than before, when all 30 kids lived in one makeshift classroom. Zeng Yun-hao (曾畇浩), who is on the school soccer team, said, “Before the dorm was finished, I liked to imagine that it would be like a high-end hotel. I really looked forward to moving in.”

His teammate, forward Shen Wei-lun (沈緯綸), is the soul of the team and key to scoring. Surprisingly, he is reserved and shy in private. He won a filial piety award in 2017 from the Hualien County government for taking good care of his grandmother, who had raised him. He cherishes his private space in the new dorm, especially compared to the old one. Each night before going to bed, he makes a point of tidying up his room.

Zeng and Shen, graduates of Hua Ren and Nanhua elementary schools respectively, became interested in playing soccer in elementary school. They both wanted to continue playing in middle school to hone their techniques.

Meilun Junior High School used to be the only school in the county that offered a soccer curriculum. Because there wasn’t enough space for all the students interested in that program, some had been forced to quit soccer when they moved on to junior high. That was one reason why Hua Ren Junior High established their soccer program, which, according to Principal Liang, has become a welcome outlet for interested graduates of elementary schools in the area.

The soccer program at Hua Ren offers its students more than training in ball handling, game strategies, and the like. It helps them build their character, too. Soccer coach Yi Chen-you (伊宸宥) remembered that his team once traveled to Taichung for a tournament. When they arrived, he asked the students to put themselves in the shoes of the housekeeping staff at the guesthouse where they were staying, and he told them to keep their rooms clean. Listening to their coach, the students tidied up their rooms and made their beds each day before going out to compete so that the cleaning personnel would have less work to do. Surprised and touched by what they had done, the proprietor of the guesthouse refunded them 10,000 dollars (US$333) to compliment them for such thoughtful behavior.


After practicing hard during the day on the school soccer field, athletic students can now get a good night’s rest in their spacious dorm rooms.

More than “I”

Principal Liang pointed out that while the education system in Taiwan for grades 1 through 12 used to focus more on students’ academic performance, the current education system encourages students to cultivate their talents and pursue their interests while continuing to nurture their academic abilities. At Hua Ren, they believe in the importance of character building, too. Starting this year, the school has sent new students to tour a Tzu Chi facility and work at an attached recycling station, making this experience a part of the orientation program for new students. School administrators believe this will help cultivate altruistic values in the students.

Student Lin You-rong (林佑容) said that the tour had helped him learn more about Tzu Chi and appreciate that it is a joy to help others. He was thankful to the foundation for helping people in other countries on behalf of the people in Taiwan.

In the same spirit of nurturing kindness in students, each class at Hua Ren has a coin bank into which students can deposit their pocket change to help others.

“Other people have helped us,” Liang said to his students. “We must keep that in mind, and when we have a chance we must in turn help those who need help too.”

The Hua Ren aboriginal dance team performs at the joint inauguration ceremony at which new structures built under Project Disaster Reduction were turned over to six Hualien schools.


January 2018