Seeing the Need

Tzu Chi provided monthly financial aid to a sick couple who had to support and take care of an autistic grandson. When volunteers visited the couple, they asked themselves, “There are enough bedrooms in the house, so why does Mrs. Zheng always sleep on a bamboo recliner in the living room?”

It was estimated that it would take a day to finish repairing the roof, but the work was done in half a day due to extra help.  Shi Long-wen

 Zheng is 63 this year. After he completed his compulsory service in the military in 1975, he got a job at a prestigious government-owned corporation. The good job provided him with a stable life. He soon got married, had a daughter, and took out a mortgage on a condominium of his own. Everything was going his way.

However, he developed severe diabetes. He eventually became too frail to work and had to take an early retirement in 1994. He had been with the company for 20 years, so he and his wife should have been able to get by on his pension and their savings, but then the unexpected happened again. Their daughter became pregnant out of wedlock, and she subsequently left her child, who had autism, in the care of her parents.

Zheng worked part-time jobs wherever he could to repay his mortgage. He repaired computers, washed dishes in restaurants, and even drove a kindergarten bus. His wife also helped shoulder the burden by doing whatever odd jobs she could find.

In 2013, Zheng began undergoing dialysis three times a week. Due to a surgically created fistula in his arm necessary for the dialysis treatment, he could not lift heavy objects, which limited the work choices available to him. His wife, though not healthy herself, gritted her teeth and worked harder to help support her family.

By early 2016, the Zhengs had depleted their savings. They could no longer afford their mortgage payments, and the bank foreclosed on their condominium. To make matters worse, Mrs. Zheng’s health took a turn for the worse and she had to stop working. The couple had no choice but to move back to Zheng’s childhood home—a traditional three-sided courtyard house, where his 91-year-old mother still lived.

The house, over a hundred years old, was in bad shape. The roof on the third floor had been blown away by a typhoon. When it rained heavily, water would cascade into the house and flow down the staircase all the way to the first floor. Other parts of the house also leaked badly. No amount of buckets or pans could catch all the leaks.

Though the house was in such bad repair, Zheng and his wife had no other option but to live there. With his pension of just 7,600 Taiwanese dollars (US$254) a month, they were in no position to rent a place of their own.

Soon after they moved back into the old house, Mrs. Zheng began experiencing awful abdominal pain. She was diagnosed with peritonitis at Taichung Tzu Chi Hospital. Surgeons there removed a tumor from her intestines and then sent her to the ICU for further care and treatment.

When he was not undergoing dialysis, Zheng washed dishes in restaurants to help meet expenses. He worried: “I’m on dialysis, my 17-year-old grandson is severely autistic, and my wife—who we were relying on to get us through—is down with cancer. What will happen to us now?”

In the face of such obstacles, Zheng despaired. “Why does heaven torture us like this and doesn’t leave even a single window open to allow us to breathe? Our life is so wretched and dark. What’s the point of living?”

Volunteers clean up the second and third floors of the Zhengs’ house. The two floors were cluttered with a variety of objects, and the ceilings had caved in.   Shi Long-wen

When a social worker at Taichung Tzu Chi Hospital learned that the couple was in despair because they couldn’t pay their medical bills, she suggested that Zheng apply to the national health insurance program for help. She said that the hospital would apply to the Tzu Chi Foun­dation for subsidies. She also provided information for a free 24-hour care service to which Zheng could apply.

After learning of all those resources available to him, Zheng began to feel a little hope again. “Heaven opened a door for us. We could step outside for fresh air.”

He had felt like a zombie during his wife’s hospital stay. “My wife, our grandson, and I are integral parts of a whole. We can’t do without each other.” With help from the government and Tzu Chi, Mrs. Zheng had the willpower to fight her disease again, and the medicine seemed to be working. This also made Zheng very happy.

After Mrs. Zheng was discharged from the hospital in October 2016, Qiu Cai-gui (邱彩桂) and other Tzu Chi volunteers began visiting the family regularly. Tzu Chi started giving the family a monthly allotment of 15,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$500) at that time too.

Every time Qiu visited the family, she would see Mrs. Zheng lying on a bamboo recliner in the living room. Qiu couldn’t help but feel curious. “They have bedrooms and beds in the house. Why doesn’t she sleep in a bedroom?” she asked herself.

Later she found the answer to her question. Mr. Zheng was the fourth of nine children, who had all moved away from their childhood home after they started their own families. His father had passed away over a decade before, and his mother now lived, along with a live-in care provider, in the only bedroom in the house that didn’t leak. Since all the other bedrooms were no longer fit for habitation, Zheng, his wife, and their grandson had no choice but to cram themselves into the living room. They conducted their daily activities and slept there.

Qiu felt really sorry for the family. To give the Zhengs a better living environment, she and other volunteers asked Tzu Chi social workers and construction department personnel to inspect the house and assess it for the possibility of repair. After the assessment, they decided to give the derelict house an overhaul.

Volunteers began working in earnest on the project after Zheng and his siblings signed the agreement to have their childhood home repaired. Sadly, just as Qiu was busy completing the application process, her own 87-year-old father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had a big cry, but at the same time she knew that illness was just a part of life. She had learned from visiting the needy that everyone had to face death sooner or later. Thus she consoled herself and continued doing what she needed to do to get the repair project underway.

After three months of preparation, the renovation started on May 21, 2017. The work planned for that first day was to replace the roof tiles. The master roofers had asked for 20 helpers, so they were surprised when 46 volunteers showed up. Some worked with the tile layers, and others cleaned up the house and prepared snacks for the workers.

The roofers removed the moss-covered, weather-worn tiles and handed them to the volunteers, who had formed a line to pass the tiles down from the roof. With the sun beating down on them, everyone kept a firm footing on the roof and worked carefully.

The master tile layers had estimated the work would take about a day, but many hands make light work. They were able to finish in less than five hours.

Another group of volunteers worked to remove the clutter from the second and third floors. The rooms there hadn’t been occupied in more than ten years. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. The volunteers put on surgical masks, packed up everything they could, including books and everyday objects, and carried them to the first floor to be discarded or recycled. They polished desks and other furniture that was still serviceable. The rooms looked bright and clean after years of dust and dirt had been removed.

Volunteer Huang A-rui (黃阿瑞), 74, worked nonstop, sweat soaking her clothes. “I’m really happy giving of myself this way,” the septuagenarian remarked. “Volunteering has enabled me to see a lot and taught me to count my blessings. I’m still quite fit despite my age. I should take advantage of it and stay active as much as I can.”

Mr. Xiao, another participant, was young and strong. He stepped forward every time there was a heavy object to carry. He made countless trips up and down the stairs, hauling stuff from the third floor down to the first. When there was no more stuff to move, he went to help pass roof tiles down the line. He said of his volunteering on this day, “My family and I once received help from Tzu Chi. I want to give back by helping others.”

Volunteers move furniture into the Zhengs’ newly repaired house.  Shi Su Yu-zhen

Lin Yan-shu (林衍束), who runs a printing company, brought his whole family to help in the clean-up effort. His two young children made trip after trip to remove junk from the house. They worked as hard as the adults.

Lin’s son, Guang-chen (光宸), was a student in eighth grade. “A 91-year-old woman lives here. Though one of her sons and his family have moved back in with her, the entire family is ill. I hope to do something for them. I want to help others as much as I can when I’m still young. Giving is happiness.”

Seeing his children buried in work undaunted by the dirt and mess, Lin Yan-shu declared that this clean-up effort was a great opportunity for them to engage in something meaningful. “Compared to watching TV and spending time on the computer at home, the kids will experience a deeper, more solid happiness serving others today.”

Volunteer Qiu Cai-gui had to take care of her hospitalized father, but on the day the renovation started, she came to the Zhengs’ home and helped clean up. “I’ve built up trust with Mr. Zheng, so I must show up today to put his mind at ease. I’m in charge of this project. I started it and I must finish it. I guess a sense of responsibility pushed me.” Having been involved in home visits for many years, she said that in addition to compassion, patience is a necessity if you want to give care recipients more substantial help.

Three days after work had begun, the roof and ceilings were fixed, the house had been cleaned and repainted, and the old house had taken on a new look. Zheng couldn’t do heavy labor because of his poor health, but he photographed the repair process with his cell phone. “I want to share the transformation of the house with my relatives and friends and leave a record for my posterity. What the volunteers have given is priceless!”

On June 1, volunteers held a house-warming party for the Zhengs. Twenty volunteers delivered some needed furniture to the house, including sofas, desks, a TV set, a glass-topped table, cupboards, and an electric hospital bed. Volunteers showed Mrs. Zheng how to use the remote control for the bed, and then they put a mattress on the bed and spread sheets on it. Volunteer Wang Yi-fen (王漪芬) helped Mrs. Zheng lie on the bed. “The mattress has the right amount of softness,” said Mrs. Zheng. “My spine feels comfortable lying on it. It’s very nice.”

Everyone gathered around the bed and sang a song to the family to convey their best wishes. Then Zheng presented the volunteers with a thank-you letter he had written. His wife sat up in bed and, putting her palms together in a gesture of respect and gratitude, said with a catch in her voice, “Thank you all.”

Luo Li-sheng (羅立勝), the volunteer who had coordinated the repair work, observed, “You have to put yourself in Mr. Zheng’s shoes to truly realize what kind of pain he must be going through. It gives me great joy to help him and cheer him up.”

Volunteer Zhang Hui-jun (張慧君) visited the Zhengs several times before the renovation project started. It was the largest project she had been engaged in. “Without the united efforts of the construction department personnel, the social workers, and Tzu Chi volunteers, this project couldn’t have gone so smoothly and the Zhengs wouldn’t have had such a nice place to live in now.”

Mrs. Zheng said, “I feel so happy just lying here and looking up at the ceiling. Our home used to be damp, dark, and messy, but now it’s so bright and clean. It’s really perked me up. It’s hard to express our gratitude in words, but thank you, Tzu Chi, for being our support.”

Mr. Zheng added, “I spent several nights writing the thank-you letter, trying my best to convey my appreciation with words. Tzu Chi has been the greatest benefactor in our entire lives—it has given us hope to keep living.” He said that when he felt well enough, he would take his grandson and volunteer at a recycling station to repay Tzu Chi for giving them so much help.

November 2017