Nowadays Steve Chiu coordinates smooth UN relations for the Tzu Chi Foundation USA, an NGO with global reach, but massive bumps started him down his path.
Mr. Chiu was seven years old and living in Columbus, Ohio, when a catastrophic earthquake shook faraway Taiwan, his family’s ancestral homeland. Even though no close family members fell victim to the giant quake, young Mr. Chiu felt compelled to act “out of a sense that a lot of people from our home country were affected.” He mobilized members of his family. “We stood in front of all the Chinese grocery stores and raised funds for Tzu Chi,” he recalls. A makeshift cardboard collection box with a hole in the top, under a sign asking shoppers to donate money, soon drew contributions.
The ad hoc humanitarian initiative made a lasting impression. “Even though I was so young, I knew that I had a part to play in helping people after such a horrible event,” says Mr. Chiu. Most of all, it relieved the sense of powerlessness that often accompanies news of catastrophes. “At last,” he says, “one pathway to help fundraise and inform individuals within our own community struck a chord in me.”
Two decades afterwards, armed with a degree in biochemistry from The Ohio State University, Mr. Chiu signed on as a program officer for Tzu Chi, an NGO established in 1989 in California by American businessman Stephen Huang.
In Chinese, “tzu” means compassion, and “chi” means relief. Mr. Huang embraced the philanthropic concept under the influence of Cheng Yen, a master teacher in the Buddhist tradition. “Here was a gentle nun who had created a powerful organization, and who was able to realize one seemingly impossible dream after another, solely for the benefit of others,” the Tzu Chi website reports. Filled with awe and admiration for Cheng Yen, Mr. Huang vowed to bring the Buddhist spirit and mission of Tzu Chi to America.
At its outset, Tzu Chi USA hosted “tea parties” where guests shared thoughts and experiences that highlighted the joy of volunteering. Gatherings motivated humanitarian impulses. Today, according to its website, Tzu Chi USA has more than 60 offices and facilities worldwide. More than 100,000 volunteers and donors cooperate to improve communities.
Tzu Chi provides food, clothing, shelter and direct financial assistance around the world. A network of hospitals, mobile units, doctors, medical professionals and volunteers furnish free health care. Founded on Buddhist philosophy, Tzu Chi fosters culture rooted in humanism, an outlook that encourages moral, self-aware behavior and willingness to act for the benefit of others. Toward that end, Tzu Chi promotes waste reduction, recycling, ethical eating, and a simple lifestyle with reduced carbon footprint.
“The poorest of the poor have the ability to make a difference too,” says Mr. Chiu. “It’s not how much you have, but how much as a society we can come together to give.”