AS early as 3.30am, they were already at the Penang International Airport and waiting for the next flight out to Kelantan. After helping to distribute the essential items to flood victims the whole day, they flew back home, and only reached Penang at about midnight the next day.
This routine lasted a whole week for the group of volunteers from the Buddhist Tzu-Chi Merits Society Malaysia.
Although they come from all kinds of background, these volunteers share the same common goal — to help the needy in any way they possibly can.
“I went to the airport at about 2am to oversee the loading of necessary supplies onto the chartered flight. I had to make sure everything was in order.
“There were about 72 of us then. We flew in and flew out the same day because there was no place for us to stay. The situation was really bad. It was like the place had just been hit by a tsunami. Virtually, everything was out including the logistics,” said Tzu-Chi commissioner Khoo Boo Leong, 56.
During the devastating floods, he added that Tzu-Chi despatched about 4,000 volunteers and 105 doctors to the affected areas in Kota Baru.
“In the early days, we didn’t know how to reach out to the victims even though we had set up a committee to oversee the project.
“Because most of the roads were cut off by flood waters, the only place we could seek information was the relief centre. We managed to meet with the penghulu from various villages there, and they later took us in a 4WD to the interior areas to meet with the victims.
“From that day onwards, we knew our objective and where we should go to provide the much needed aid and medical assistance. It made our job so much easier and it also meant that it could serve our purpose too,” said Khoo.
He said the first temporary house they helped build there was for a Chinese family in February.
“We had to rush to build the house because Chinese New Year was fast approaching. The penghulu was very understanding. He told us to do it as soon as possible because it would affect the family if they don’t have a proper home during the festive season,” said Khoo.
Just last month, Tzu-Chi carried out the Cash-For-Work programme where victims were paid RM100 each day to help clean up their own homes, community halls and also the mosques.
Buddhist Tzu-Chi Malaysia chief executive officer Koay Chiew Poh said the idea was mooted by Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
“We consulted her from day one because she has experience in crisis management.
“From my observation, the most important thing that the flood victims needed was a house. They did not dare to go to work and leave behind their family in the tents fearing for their safety,” he said.
Koay, 63, who is also the executive chairman of Public Packages Holdings Bhd, said Tzu-Chi had agreed to build eight permanent houses in Tumpat after being approached by the authorities there.
“Each single-storey unit will cost about RM45,000. The built-up area will be about 1,000sq ft. The project will start next month and probably be completed by July,” he said.
Besides building temporary houses, Koay added that they have also given some of the victims a motorcycle, a sewing machine and convertible beds to help rebuild their lives.
“We try our best to help them. So far, we’ve built 80 temporary houses to the victims. Our plan is to build 220 of such houses. We should meet that target by June.
“The temporary home is not big, about 300sq ft but it’s more comfortable than living in a tent.
“Natural disasters are merciless but we will offer solace and a helping hand to help the victims rebuild their lives,” he said.
Four months since the floods struck the state, Tzu-Chi still has about 20 volunteers there now to help the victims.
“So far, we’ve spent about RM4mil to help the victims and their families in the East Coast. This does not include the RM350,000 worth of instant rice from Taiwan.”
Koay said the society’s headquarters is in Penang, where there are more than 3,000 volunteers.
Besides an education centre and Jing Si Tang (Still Thoughts Hall) in Macalister Road, the society also has a new dialysis centre in Perak Road.
A total of 79 patients are now receiving free treatment at the dialysis centre which has 16 dialysis machines.
Kidney patient Tan Soon Lye, 47, said the centre was like his second home.
“I come here for treatment and in my free time, I also do volunteer work.
“The nurses here also hold birthday celebrations for the patients. All of them are very kind towards us,” he said.