In the early morning of September 25, 2023, the Las Vacas River in Guatemala City, capital of Guatemala in Central America, experienced a sudden and severe rise in water levels due to heavy rainfall. Residents living in illegal makeshift tin houses along the riverbanks were caught off guard and could not escape in time. Tragically, six people lost their lives, with fifteen more missing. Six houses in the area were washed away.

Mobilizing to Bring Aid

On learning the news, Tzu Chi volunteers urgently started disaster assessment and relief efforts. On September 28, the key contact person of Tzu Chi Guatemala, Ko Feng-chin (柯芬卿), along with OCA (Overseas Community Affairs) Secretary Dong Huijun (董惠鈞) and volunteer Chen Ya-qi (陳亞琪), among others, set out for the disaster-stricken area. Despite being in the capital's seventh district, the area was extremely secluded, and direct access by vehicles was impossible.

They navigated through a winding path, passing under the Narnajo Bridge through barbed wire, leading to the village of Dios es Fiel in the impoverished area of Anexo Kjell. The path involved precarious stone steps without any railing for support, demanding careful attention with each step.

Residents in Prensa Libre are mostly migrants who came to the city seeking a livelihood. They reside in makeshift structures constructed from tin sheets for temporary shelter, creating a complex community structure. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/09/28

According to interviews conducted by a reporter from the local major newspaper, Prensa Libre, residents in this area are mostly migrants who came to the city seeking work. They reside in makeshift structures made from tin sheets for temporary shelter. There are 85 houses and over 100 families in this community.

The volunteers visited on a Monday, a day when many residents were either at work or school, making the streets  relatively quiet. There was a small grocery store selling items in small packages, catering to the residents' limited purchasing capacity. Upon learning of Tzu Chi's plan to provide relief supplies, residents near the distribution spot began clearing the space, leaving cooking utensils and tables and chairs for the evacuees.

Ko Feng-chin (center), handed over the aid collection vouchers to the village head, Jayro Ramirez (left). She instructed them to ensure the supplies reach the hands of the seventy-nine disaster-affected households promptly. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/02

That day volunteers prepared 11 sets of cash relief, each containing GTQ 500 (about US$63.9), and promptly distributed them to the affected impoverished households. On October 2, volunteers conducted another assessment;  Ko Feng-chin carefully reviewed the list, ultimately deciding to provide aid to 79 households. She handed the Tzu Chi aid collection vouchers to the village head, Jayro Ramírez, and emphasized the importance of delivering the supplies to the affected individuals in a timely manner.

Struck by Calamity

Anna Maria, a survivor of the disaster, is mourning the loss of several family members—her sister, brother-in-law, and their entire family of seven all perished. On receiving the heartbreaking news, her younger sister rushed from the countryside to be by her side. A year ago, Anna Maria and her husband had moved there temporarily with their children, with her husband working hard to support the family.

Her sister's family had been living in this area for five years and were unable to afford rent for houses on higher ground. The volunteers observed that even the houses on higher ground were makeshift, but they were safe from flooding—a source of happiness for those residents.

“I was only a few houses away, but by the time I reached home, the river had already taken them away. Not even one of them was left behind!" Anna Maria expressed her deep sorrow. She pleaded: "We ask God to help us find the bodies of others still missing. Once found, please return the bodies to us. We cannot give up on the search."

Residents of Dios es Fiel village arranged photos and fresh flowers, to commemorate the departed souls who once lived on this flat land. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/09/28

Carlos Humberto, a 22-year-old gardener, lost his father in the disaster. His father earned a meager income by shining shoes. Volunteers accompanied Carlos to a flat area where residents had placed photos and laid flowers to commemorate the deceased. The sudden mudslide passed through a narrow curve, violently impacting several houses on the opposite bank—where they used to live.

Military personnel were still present at the scene, but the critical 72-hour window for disaster response had passed, and the hope of finding missing individuals alive was fading. The soldiers organized a birthday celebration for surviving children, hoping they could emerge from the grief and smile again.

Creating a Cycle of Kindness

After a disaster assessment, a distribution scheduled for October 8 had to be canceled due to political protests which rendered the roads impassable. Keeping a close eye on the situation, the village head, Jayro Ramirez, informed the volunteers that the distribution could take place on the 22nd after the situation eased.

Volunteers promptly procured the necessary supplies and delivered them a day in advance. Trucks could only unload at the Narnajo Bridge, where residents, young and old, eagerly joined the volunteers to transport the goods. Their unity deeply touched the volunteers. Once all the goods were unloaded, the volunteers stored them safely, awaiting the distribution scheduled for the next day.

Volunteer Mr. Liu Li-wen (left) participated in Tzu Chi's distribution for the first time in Guatemala and shared the origin of "Bamboo Bank Era." Residents responded eagerly to his call to action. | Photo by Wu Ci Tien | Guatemala 2023/10/22

The distribution began with Ko Feng-chin checking each recipient’s ID and vouchers. Villagers entered with their vouchers and reusable bags, patiently waiting for the ceremony to commence. During her speech, Ko explained to them that Tzu Chi was founded by Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan out of compassion for all sentient beings. Tzu Chi is a non-governmental religious organization promoting the spirit of Great Love without regard to religion or race. Following this, Mr. Liu Li-wen (劉立文) , husband of volunteer Lin Yue-zi (林悅孜), shared the origin of the "Bamboo Bank Era," emphasizing that everyone can help others no matter how little they can give. The ceremony was solemn, and the villagers listened attentively.

Although Liu Li-wen was participating in Tzu Chi activities in Guatemala and fundraising for the first time, his wife's connection to Tzu Chi made him well-versed in the organization's stories. His heartfelt sharing of the Bamboo Bank Era and the power of fifty cents deeply moved the crowd. As a result, they showed their enthusiasm to spread love by dropping coins into the bamboo coin bank.

In response to the spirit of the Bamboo Bank, Anna Maria (holding the child), who lost several family members and was still dazed, brought out spare change from her home. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/22

Anna Maria was still in a daze from losing several family members in the disaster. Holding her child, she brought  spare change from her home, responding to the spirit of the Bamboo Bank. The volunteers wished her a speedy recovery from the grief with the belief that "one act of kindness dispels a thousand disasters." Some residents apologized for not bringing change, and others, after taking the supplies home, returned with coins, dropping them one by one or even handfuls into the bamboo bank.

For this distribution, volunteers purchased items including black beans, sugar, cooking oil, rice bran, oatmeal, instant noodles, biscuits, a blanket, four bars of soap, and six rolls of toilet paper for each of the 79 beneficiary households.

The distributed items were abundant and essential for daily life, more than what one person could carry alone. Villagers received the goods with smiles. Women holding infants were assisted by volunteers in carrying their items. The profound love from Tzu Chi dispelled the shadows brought by the disaster, and villagers regained their smiles, expressing gratitude repeatedly.

Jayro Ramirez facilitated everything, including tents, tables, microphones, sound systems, and parking spaces; he busily managed the situation. He expressed gratitude for Tzu Chi's assistance and said: "Thank you all for joining us and being with us. This help is beneficial for us low-income individuals."

Facing uneven terrain, volunteers needed to rely on their strength and mindfulness. Although Ko Feng-chin is 76, she still led by example and worked tirelessly by actively participating in every stage of the relief work.

Dire Conditions of the Elderly, Sick, and Disabled

Following the aid distribution in Dios es Fiel village, volunteers hurriedly made their way to San Jose Viñola City to conduct another distribution for the vulnerable population scheduled for the afternoon. The city has been collaborating with Tzu Chi for the past twelve years, fostering a deep community connection since Mayor Miguel Angel Solares Montenegro took office in 2012. Recently, the city government applied for assistance from Tzu Chi to aid impoverished and sick families in the city.

San Jose Viñola City expressed gratitude for Tzu Chi's donation, which benefited twenty-nine households. A commemorative plaque was presented, and Tzu Chi Guatemala contact person Ko Feng-chin (center) accepted it on behalf of the organization. (The lady in white is Ms. Nancy.)| Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/22

At the city hall, Ms. Nancy, a representative of the city government, and Ko Feng-chin delivered speeches, followed by a presentation on the "Bamboo Bank Era" by Liu Li-wen. Ms. Nancy has a special connection with Tzu Chi; she worked at the Peresia City Hall before, leading Tzu Chi volunteers on their first visit while wearing three-inch heels, walking on steep muddy paths to survey fifteen households. She moved to San Jose Viñola City twelve years ago and continues to work there. In recognition of the donation, the city government specially prepared a commemorative plaque, accepted by Ko Feng-chin; this enhanced the solemnity of the ceremony.

Inside the venue, volunteers met many elderly, sick, and disabled residents. Fifty-eight-year-old María Eugenia, who used to work in computer-related jobs, had her right leg amputated due to bone cancer ten years ago. She now lives with her twenty-year-old son. Despite losing her right leg, she remains optimistic and agile, using crutches to navigate stairs without assistance.

A 43-year-old man underwent brain surgery eight years ago, leaving him unable to walk. He lives with his twenty-year-old daughter and fifteen-year-old son. The surgery impaired his ability to use his legs, requiring the support of two people to walk. He has been unable to work for the past three years. Additionally, among the residents are people facing unique challenges, including people living alone, and an elderly woman enduring shingles for over a year. Furthermore, there is a single mother courageously caring for her son and her elderly mother, creating a resilient three-generation support system.

Volunteer Ling Yao-shuo (in gray) helped in holding the bamboo bank for fundraising and assisted a woman with a baby in collecting relief items. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/22

Volunteer Ling Yao-shuo (凌耀灼) facilitated the wheelchair distribution process, allowing those with limited mobility to personally experience the act of giving. His friend, Shi Zhong (施忠), attended the event for the first time, accompanied by his wife and daughter. They gracefully presented each item with gratitude, expressing appreciation for the good affinities between them.

On October 22, after successfully conducting the distribution in the impoverished areas of Guatemala City, volunteers hurried to the City Hall of San Jose Viñola City, to distribute supplies to twenty-nine residents facing poverty and illness. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/22

The large number of supplies needed for the two distributions on the 22nd was procured by experienced volunteer Luo Su-chen (羅素珍). In San Jose Viñola City, except for replacing instant noodles with spaghetti, the supplies were the same as in the morning, benefiting a total of twenty-nine households.

The most important aspect of giving is for each person to inspire a kind thought, and to continually pass on this love. When doing good, we must not leave anyone behind; the collective thoughts of goodness, when accumulated, will create harmony and bring blessings to the community.

Tzu Chi's Great Love swept away the shadows of disaster. After receiving an abundance of essential supplies, with smiles on their faces, the villagers expressed their heartfelt gratitude time and again. | Photo by Wu Ci-tien | Guatemala | 2023/10/22

The two consecutive distributions have taught the volunteers the importance of realizing one’s own blessings, cherishing these blessings and sowing more blessings to help others in need. In life, the process of aging, illness, and death is unavoidable, so we must seize every opportunity to spread the Buddha’s teachings and benefit all lives. For the volunteers in Guatemala, they hope that, through helping the impoverished, they too can pass forward such acts of kindness. If every person can do an act of kindness, we will be able to mitigate disasters and create a world of peace and prosperity.

Story by Wu Ci-tien, Chu Xiu-lian / Central America Report | 2023/12/ 30