This story was produced as part of a partnership between Ethnic Media Services and The San Francisco Standard.
When a second-grader said he wanted to become a robber when he grew up, Roxanne Huang Buchwitz couldn’t believe what she heard.
“I said, ‘No, no, no,’” the 64-year-old educator recalled. “You want to be something else.”
An immigrant from Taiwan, Buchwitz stood among a dozen other Asian American immigrants, all providing after-school programs to the elementary school children at Malcolm X Academy through Tzu Chi, a Buddhist nonprofit organization.
Among the many nonprofit organizations working in Bayview-Hunters Point—a low-income, and historically Black but increasingly diverse neighborhood—Tzu Chi stands out. Headquartered in Hualien, Taiwan, its volunteers typically provide immediate relief for those affected by natural disasters. But here in San Francisco, the local branch is involved in a decades-long project to uplift the city’s most disadvantaged kids.
Several high-profile incidents in which Black assailants have targeted Asian Americans, often singling out seniors, have fueled racial tensions and given rise to a perception in some quarters that crime is rampant. That makes Tzu Chi’s work in the chronically underserved Bayview-Hunters Point, where the organization has run academic programs since 2004 and run a food pantry since 2012, especially important at a moment when bridges between the two communities are in need of reinforcement.
Tzu Chi’s involvement with the neighborhood began in 2004 when it was contacted by local educators to participate in book-donation events. Lulu Yin, the head of the group’s San Francisco chapter, realized that the conditions in neighborhood schools were poor in many ways, and attendance rates were low. An immigrant from Taiwan who has lived in the Richmond District for more than 20 years, Yin believes the group’s mission is to provide help where it’s needed most.
“I understand these children are from underprivileged families,” she said. “If they don’t get a proper education, the cycle is about to continue.” Yin also noted that among all the organizations helping Bayview-Hunters Point, Tzu Chi is one of few supported mostly by public donations, not government funding.
Buchwitz said the Tzu Chi volunteers have worked with four schools in the area, emphasizing the importance of keeping children in class. One of the organization’s signature programs is “Excellent Attendance Awards,” which provide scholarships and incentives to students who attend school on time without missing a day. Over the years, more than 1,000 students have benefited from the program.
Shavonne Hines-Foster, a former student delegate at the San Francisco school board and now a college student, was a Tzu Chi scholarship recipient. It inspired her to contribute back to the community.
“One of my greatest achievements is making my community proud, by doing all the work I am in the community,” Hines-Foster said last year in a video statement. “How I continue to spread my love and support throughout after receiving the Tzu Chi Foundation scholarship is by supporting all who needs to be supported.”
Beyond the school programs, Tzu Chi volunteers—who are mostly immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia—also provide other types of aid, including running dental clinics, organizing food assistance, and donating academic equipment and furniture. They offer financial resources for kids to help do community work, too, especially for those who live in the Alice Griffith Apartments, a large public housing development in the neighborhood.
The charity also aims to provide Chinese cultural experiences and language classes, immersing the children and students in a diverse environment to cultivate a mindset for them to embrace the world.
Jonathan Pratt, a college student and native of Bayview-Hunters Point, appreciated what Tzu Chi has been doing to build the cross-community, cross-culture, and cross-ethnic bridges. He has been involved with Tzu Chi’s program for 10 years, since he was a child, and the experience of learning Mandarin Chinese and going to Taiwan for a learning trip with Tzu Chi “definitely stood out” for him.
“That’s not only eye-opening to me, but also opens my mind culturally,” Pratt said. Among with five other students, he traveled to Taiwan with Tzu Chi in 2018, visiting the Hualien headquarters and learning more of the Chinese language and Buddhist culture.
Shamann Walton, the President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors President, has worked with the group for years, praising positive impacts on schools and the community engagement that Tzu Chi has brought to Bayview-Hunters Point.
“Tzu Chi is a great organization that has been working in Bayview for years.” Walton said, “They have always supported Bayview schools and promote health in public housing communities in Bayview.”
On March 5, Tzu Chi conducted its weekly cleaning programs at Alice Griffith, where Pratt, a resident, has made a tradition of helping out. He told The Standard that he still misses the trip to Hualien and everything he learned there. But now, he’s enjoying San Francisco and helping out to make a change for the community.
“In order to make those changes, you have to start somewhere,” Pratt said.
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]