At the height of Typhoon Ulysses in November 2020, when torrential rains submerged Marikina City in floodwaters that rose as high as the second story of many homes, the first thing 64-year-old Ermelinda Sarte saved was her Tzu Chi Foundation uniform, a blue-and-white collared T-shirt and a pair of white pants.
“At first I covered it with plastic and hung it as high as I could,” says Sarte, who considered heading for the roof with her family when floods reached the window of their home’s second floor. “Then when the flood rose even higher, I put my uniform in my backpack, together with a few other important things.” By now, the longtime Tzu Chi volunteer knew the drill: In the face of disaster, she and others like her would be there to provide help—even if she herself needed it.
It was an earlier typhoon that led Sarte to find her calling in volunteerism. At the onslaught of Typhoon Ondoy in September 2009, the wife of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) then based in Dubai found herself taking care of their six children alone. While she and the younger ones sought refuge in their community school in Nangka, the older ones could only watch helplessly from the roof of their home as floodwaters slowly inched higher and higher.
Once the flood subsided, leaving 400,000 people homeless, the Tzu Chi Foundation stepped in, offering a “Cash for Work” program that saw locals help clear flood debris in their neighborhood for P400 a day. Relief also came in the form of food, medical missions, and financial aid. “We were so thankful to the Tzu Chi Foundation,” says Sarte.
Once life was back in order, Sarte was among the first to respond when the foundation held a seminar for volunteers in its Quezon City office. “It’s not just because I am indebted to them,” she says of why she joined, “it’s because I wanted to help others and I feel happy doing it.” She also liked that the foundation was a non-profit organization that didn’t try to convert her, a Catholic, into a Buddhist, something that her family was admittedly worried about at the start.
Since serving as a Tzu Chi Foundation volunteer more than 10 years ago, Sarte has helped Filipinos in relief operations in Cavite, Nueva Ecija, Cabanatuan, and Leyte, the province that experienced the brunt of Super Typhoon Yolanda’s fury in 2013. Present during home visits to the sick, youth programs, and bazaars organized by the foundation, she was recently involved in the distribution of relief goods to Marikina’s jeepney drivers, whose livelihood was greatly affected by the lockdowns due to COVID-19.
Even her daughter Angelica has benefited from the foundation’s generosity. As its full scholar, Angelica finished a four-year course in information technology at the International Electronics and Technical Institute Marikina.
Through her active participation with the Tzu Chi Foundation, Sarte has come to imbibe many of the teachings imparted by Master Cheng Yen—teachings not unlike those she practices as a Catholic. “I learned to be part of the community,” says this once shy wife and mother, “to broaden my patience and understanding of people, to listen and say thank you when people argue and fight with me.”
“Until I can,” she says when asked how long she plans to serve as a Tzu Chi Foundation volunteer. “They are my second family.”