Giving Her All

Most people see money as security and try to save as much as they can, but she doesn’t give a second thought about giving hers away for a worthy cause. And it’s not just money she gives away; she contributes her time and energy too.

A devoted disciple of Master Cheng Yen’s, Gao Ai lives a life of giving. Cai Li-yu

At the sound of her alarm clock, Gao Ai
(高愛), 86, slowly sat up on her bed before adroitly gathering her grey hair into a bun. Then she picked up a walking stick propped against her bed, limped to the living room, and turned on the television. A Buddhist morning service conducted at the Jing Si Abode, the convent founded by Master Cheng Yen, was being broadcast. Gao chanted sutras in unison with the nuns at the Abode. When the service was over, she watched a Dharma talk given by Master Cheng Yen. Then, after a simple breakfast, she left home to go out for her favorite activity—volunteering for Tzu Chi.

“Today is Tuesday,” the old woman said with spirit. “I’m helping clean up the Tzu Chi Banqiao Complex [in Taipei].” She used to bike to the complex, but her spine has badly degenerated, so she can only go there by bus or in other volunteers’ cars. Her spine isn’t her only problem, either. She became blind in her right eye when a brain tumor compressed her optic nerves, and there isn’t much vision left in her other eye. Despite these physical challenges, she insists on going out to volunteer.

“I just can’t bring myself to sit around at home when I think of the heavy burden on Master Cheng Yen’s shoulders,” said the octogenarian. “I’m still young. I want to help out as much as I can.” She almost never misses a chance to volunteer, whether it be cleaning the complex, cooking for Tzu Chi events, or packing Tzu Chi publications—not to mention recycling, which she does every day.

It wasn’t even 7:00 a.m. yet when she arrived at the Banqiao complex, but dozens of volunteers were already there tidying up the place. Gao was assigned to clean the cabinets, chairs, desks, and windows in a conference room. She put aside her walking stick and, leaning on a desk, started wiping it clean. She couldn’t see clearly, so she ran her hand across the area she had cleaned to make sure there was no more dust on it before moving on to the next desk or cabinet.

“I can’t stand for long now,” Gao said, “and I always have to lean on something for support.” She had always had issues with her back and legs, but she paid no heed to them until six or seven years ago. By the time she finally sought medical help, however, her condition was too far along for surgery. Her only option was a procedure for stabilizing compression fractures in the spine by injecting bone cement into cracked or broken spinal bones. Her doctor advised her to take a lot of rest after the procedure, but she couldn’t stand being idle. After some rest, she resumed her volunteering, wearing a back brace and leaning on a walker.

Gao makes coin banks in which people can save money to donate to the needy. Lin Qiao-yun

Gao has long been a dedicated volunteer. She recalled her earlier days as a Tzu Chi volunteer as she wiped down desks and chairs: “I tried my hardest to make money to help the Master build Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital. I cleaned the Huazhong Bridge, sold fruit, and tidied people’s houses.”

At the time, she had to rise “early” every day to clean the bridge. When her alarm clock sounded around midnight—with her bed still barely warm from her sleep—she would quickly get up, wash some rice and put it in the cooker to cook, and then hop on her bicycle to get to work by one o’clock. By the time she returned home from work, it would be past five. She would then fix breakfast, wake her children up, and get them ready for school. After they had left, she went to a fruit and vegetable wholesale market to buy fruit to sell. In the afternoons, she cleaned houses for people.

Back then, people often illegally collected gravel from under the bridge where she worked. When the winds rose, the bridge would be covered with sand. It was a difficult job to clean all that sand away. She would sweep it into a dustpan before emptying the pan into a wheelbarrow. After a few hours of sweeping, her shoulders were so sore that she could barely raise her arms. Though the work was backbreaking, it was a government job and the pay—6,000 NT dollars (US$200) a month—was steady. She stayed doggedly in that job for a decade.

She donated all her hard-earned money to Tzu Chi. In fact, her footprints are all over the foundation’s charity work. One time, after she had just donated 150,000 NT dollars (US$5,000) and was feeling very happy, she listened to a talk given by Master Cheng Yen and learned about the dilapidated houses of some impoverished people in China. She wanted to help those poor people, but she had just donated all her money; her pockets were now empty. She felt so awful, she couldn’t sleep that night. After tossing and turning for some time, she stripped her bed of sheets and blankets and slept on the bare, hard wooden surface. She decided that she may not have money to donate, but she could at least suffer with those poor people to show that her heart was with them.

When the Tzu Chi Taipei office opened in 1991, Gao was hired as a cook. Every morning around three, she would go to the market to buy groceries. Her purchases often weighed dozens of kilograms. Not wanting to spend money on transportation, she would hang all those ingredients on her bicycle and pedal hard toward the office.

Later, due to safety considerations, the kitchen at the office ceased to be used for the daily meal preparations. A catering company took over providing meals for volunteers and employees at the office. When this happened, Gao switched to cleaning the office. She kept the place spic and span. Seeing how spotless she kept the place, someone once said to her, “Tzu Chi is like your home!” She answered proudly, “Tzu Chi is my home!”

Since Gao had been hired as a paid employee, her salary was wired every month into her bank account, but she never used that money. She later gave her passbook to an employee at the office and asked her to withdraw all the money from her account. She then donated it to Tzu Chi.

When the Tzu Chi Banqiao Complex was inaugurated in 2005, Gao quit as an employee and became a full-time volunteer. Since then, her slightly stooped figure has been a common sight at the complex, carrying a water bucket and rag, and cleaning the environment.

Gao (second from right) serves as a cleaning volunteer at the Tzu Chi Banqiao Complex. Chen Shi-gan

Gao said that all her clothes, except for her volunteer uniforms, are recycled. She pinches every penny and lives as frugally as she can so she can donate as much money as possible to help Master Cheng Yen do good things for the world. She never tells others how much she has donated—she might have even lost count herself. All that she remembers is the satisfying sense of joy every donation brings.

“Even though I no longer make money,” she smiled, “I still have money to donate—my monthly old-age pensions from the government.” She explained that her oldest son gives her an allowance of 5,000 NT dollars (US$170) every month, and that money is enough to cover her expenses, so she is free to donate her pensions.

“Sister Gao Ai, time for snacks!” a volunteer called out to Gao. The volunteers were done cleaning up the complex and were having some snacks to wrap up the day. Gao handed her rag to a volunteer to put away, and then she picked up her walking stick and went downstairs to the dining hall. She doesn’t take the elevator because she wants to save electricity.

After having snacks, Gao returned to her community to volunteer at a recycling point located in an empty lot in front of a building near her home. There is a lot of garbage to sort there every day. She loves recycling and finds a lot of solace in the work.

When she arrived back at her community, she didn’t go directly to the recycling point but returned instead to her home first to fetch her bike. “Walking is slow and painful for me,” she said. “A volunteer gave me a bicycle, so I use it to cycle to places near home.” Putting on a helmet, she climbed on her bike and added, “When I hear a car horn, I immediately stop and let that car pass before I move on.” She then got her bicycle going and after traversing a few alleys arrived at the recycling point.

Several large bags of garbage waiting to be sorted were already in the lot, and a handful of volunteers had started working. Gao parked her bike and, without even taking off her helmet, slipped on a pair of gloves and immediately set to work. Perched on a low stool, she organized the garbage by type. Once she started, she didn’t even once raise her head; it was as if she felt that if she wasn’t quick, others would finish all the work, leaving her with nothing to do. Cardboard boxes, newspapers, magazines, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles—a significant amount of recyclables is brought in each day, with plastic bottles making up the majority. Produced by more than 200 households, the recyclables are enough to fill a small truck.

Some volunteers once suggested to Gao that she rest at home occasionally instead of volunteering every day. They didn’t want her to overwork herself. But Gao has a mind of her own. “Time passes faster when I’m out volunteering,” she said. “Even my backaches seem easier to bear.”

When she thinks of how, despite her age, she is still able to help decrease Master Cheng Yen’s burden, a smile creeps across her face.

July 2019