Strength in Numbers—Gao Xin-yu

Must you join an organization to do good? Not necessarily. But there is only so much a person working alone can do, whether it be providing disaster relief or caring for the needy. There is truth in the old saying that there is strength in numbers.

I was a member of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association when I was in college. I participated in a lot of volunteer work, including tutoring underprivileged students, cleaning beaches and mountains, and helping typhoon victims. The work that left the deepest impression on me was a cultural exchange activity with students who lived in remote villages in Guizhou Province, China, and who were receiving tuition aid from Tzu Chi. That was my first trip out of Taiwan; I was curious about any place outside of Taiwan, and Guizhou was no exception.

The places I visited in Guizhou lived up to my only impression of life in remote areas: travel there was inconvenient. Living conditions there were also subpar. Mere thunderbolts could cripple a town’s electrical grid and leave the entire area without power. When it rained outside, it rained inside in some homes too. The mountain villages in Guizhou might be like veritable Shangri-las to tourists, but the locals had to contend with a lack of resources, day in and day out.

Despite such deprivations, I discovered that the local folk were content and happy. They didn’t feel their lives were more backward than others’. They were, in a nutshell, at peace and ease with their lives. Given their situation, their outlook came as a surprise to me, and planted in me the seeds of a new perspective. It changed how I looked at poverty.

Accompanied by Tzu Chi volunteers in her community, Gao Xin-yu (高昕妤, middle) completed her volunteer training in 2021. She received her certification from Dharma Master Cheng Yen at the end of the same year. In the background is a picture of the Jing Si Abode. Xu Jin-fu

Alone or with a group?

What led me to join a service organization like the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association?

In college, I saw a world dominated by capitalism, making some rich while forcing others to live in deprivation. How could the impoverished change their fortunes for the better? Even getting a good education was no guarantee that underprivileged children could escape the hardship in which their families were trapped. They needed help, a boost from society to rise above the disadvantages that kept them poor. It was my belief that organizations devoted to charity work were essential in helping people break the cycle of poverty.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen was wise in establishing a system through which the rich are encouraged to give to the poor—she helps people who are relatively well-off realize that everyone has a responsibility to help bring about a better society. I joined the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association because it was through such a group I could best help people in need.

After I graduated from college and began working as an elementary school teacher, my mother—who is a certified Tzu Chi volunteer—would often ask me if I’d like to train to become a certified volunteer too. But I wasn’t in a hurry to do so. I was still young and felt there was plenty of time in my future to train and receive my certification. Even though I was untrained and uncertified, I had never stopped volunteering for Tzu Chi. I felt that was enough.

During this time, I began wondering whether it was necessary to join an organization to do good. I pondered the difference between doing good on one’s own and with a group. After some thought, I decided that the strength of one person is necessarily limited, whether it be providing disaster relief or caring for the needy. An individual working alone can get tired, or may be uncertain how to best help those in need. But if you are in a group like Tzu Chi, you have fellow volunteers to help you when you are tired, to guide you back on track when you are straying off course, and to talk to when you are unsure about yourself. There is truth in the old saying that there is strength in numbers.

Even though I was already volunteering for Tzu Chi and no stranger to the work they did, my participation would always be limited if I didn’t train and become a full-fledged volunteer. I would even be unqualified to do certain work. Once I realized this, training to be a certified volunteer became important. It would allow me to contribute more. Besides, Master Cheng Yen was getting old. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of receiving my certification from her. That was why I decided to begin training.

Being a teacher kept me very busy, but attending training made my life even busier. Taiwan experienced a sudden outbreak of the coronavirus during the course of my training, and our in-person training classes were moved online. Other activities, such as volunteering at a Tzu Chi hospital or visiting the needy, were also cancelled. I was worried that my training wasn’t as solid as it should have been, but I was happy at the same time that I had started volunteering for Tzu Chi when I was in college and already had some understanding of the foundation.

Even though some of our training events—as well as many Tzu Chi activities— were cancelled due to the pandemic, our hands weren’t completely tied. On the contrary, it created some opportunities and possibilities. For instance, our volunteers became much more versed at using digital tools to promote and carry out Tzu Chi work. This also made it a lot easier to communicate with some older volunteers. My mother is a good example. She didn’t know much about using technology before the pandemic, but now can expertly lead an online study group.

After Typhoon Nepartak hit Taitung, eastern Taiwan, in 2016, Gao Xin-yu and her fellow members of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association held a summer camp and provided care to students at Malan Elementary School in Taitung. Zhan Jin-de

Original aspirations

During that outbreak of domestic COVID cases in Taiwan, all schools were temporarily closed and instruction continued online. The shift to remote learning in mid-May 2021 negatively impacted some students’ learning. To help remedy the situation, Tzu Chi partnered with PaGamO, an educational platform that uses online gaming to foster learning, to launch an online learning program during the summer vacation. In the program, college students were enlisted to tutor elementary and secondary school students from disadvantaged families. As a Tzu Chi volunteer and teacher, I naturally had to give my full support to the program. I volunteered as a tutor and was glad to have the opportunity to serve. I knew I’d learn from the experience too. The tutoring program continued even when summer vacation ended and in-person classes resumed. I continued serving as a tutor for the program too, using my free time from work. I also helped improve the curriculum with other program tutors and interacted with parents.

One time I shared with my online students the importance of environmental protection. To make the topic more interesting and accessible, I started by asking them why people needed to clean drainage ditches when a typhoon was coming and what they usually found in the ditches. Such questions led the youngsters to wonder why there was so much garbage in ditches, how the garbage could cause blockage and flooding, and how, when washed out into the ocean, the trash could harm marine creatures such as sea turtles. My students were highly responsive and I found it easy to engage them because we were discussing topics related to their lives or to current issues. Some children became so invested they were unwilling to sign off even when I had dismissed a class. They wanted to stay on and chat with me.

Because of my background in special education, I was asked to accompany students with special needs when the summer vacation ended and a new semester began. One of the children assigned to me had difficulty focusing in class and struggled to learn new concepts. Online classes were difficult for him. One day during a class, when the student was again obviously distracted, I happened to see what was going on in the background. His siblings were running around naked, while his father was lying on his back, his eyes glued to a smartphone. I also caught the haggard, anxious look of the mother, who had enrolled her son in the program.

I suddenly realized that as far as this family was concerned, the boy’s school work could no longer take priority over what was going on in the home. I reported the family’s situation to our team and suggested that volunteers visit the family to find out if they were getting by okay and if they needed any assistance. To help the child, perhaps we needed to help the family first.

Once, because I was busy at work, I couldn’t immediately call back the mother of a child I was tutoring. The mother was unhappy when I called her. I was angry too, thinking to myself, “Why couldn’t she be more considerate? Didn’t she know I was busy?” I was really upset in that moment, but I did my best to stay calm by reminding myself of my original aspirations that had set me on the path of volunteering. I tried to put myself in the mother’s shoes too, and gradually I was better able to see things from her perspective. I realized I was facing a mother who was worried about her kid’s education and who probably didn’t know how to tactfully express her thoughts and feelings. After that, I felt a lot better. I calmly said to her, “Don’t worry. We’ll be sure to take care of that for you.”

Oftentimes we feel hurt in interpersonal relationships because we are expecting something different from the person with whom we are dealing. In most instances, no one really hurts you; they just fail to meet your expectations. I’ve since learned not to let my emotions get the better of me. Instead, I try to focus on what is really the problem at hand and address that issue.

Gao attended a volunteer training class before an outbreak of COVID-19 in Taiwan in 2021 forced such physical events to grind to a halt. Lin Hong-mou

Living each day like it was my last

My schedule is now packed each day. I arrive at work every morning at eight and usually it isn’t until ten at night that I can unwind from the day. I have a lot on my plate, but I have also learned how to more efficiently use my time. Even though I had more free time on my hands in the past, I tended to procrastinate. Now that I know what I am doing has great significance, I’m better able to manage my time and map out my schedule more precisely. I do my best to increase my efficiency, living each day like it was my last.

When things happen that make me feel tired and down, I turn to Master Cheng Yen’s teachings for guidance and inspiration. Her teachings are like a guidebook for life, but you must personally live them out to really benefit from them. At 27, I’m younger than many other volunteers, so their life stories, experiences, and perceptions about life also provide precious lessons from which I can learn. I don’t have to experience the pain or tribulations they went through to learn those lessons. I’m thankful to them for the wisdom they impart with their words or personal examples.

With the help of the Buddha’s teachings, we in Tzu Chi are expected to constantly refine ourselves until we are each like a grain of rice with the chaff removed. Master Cheng Yen also expects the younger generations in Tzu Chi to bravely shoulder the responsibility of the world. For a time, the weight of that responsibility bore down on me—I felt I had taken on a hefty mission. But then I thought through it and realized I was putting undue pressure on myself. I am an elementary school teacher. I can live up to the Master’s expectations by mindfully guiding my students. Through education, I can play a role in helping them transform themselves into grains of rice free of chaff, and become adults that know how to give back to the society that has nurtured them. This is one way of shouldering the responsibility of the world.



The Tzu Chi volunteer uniform that I wear symbolizes the path of goodness the volunteers before me have paved. It’s an honor to wear it. I thank every volunteer for paving the road ahead of me and for sharing their life experiences and stories with me. The more I learn in Tzu Chi, the more I can share with others. Becoming a certified volunteer is like obtaining a key to the door that leads to goodness. It’s now my mission to help carry out Master Cheng Yen’s ideals and the charity work of Tzu Chi.—Gao Xin-yu


March 2022