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A Motor Home Full of Hope

Buddhist Group's Mobile Clinic Gives Care to Residents of Blythe Street

April 21, 2001|IRENE GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Great Love Mobile Clinic cruised into town recently, Leonor Galvez and hundreds of neighbors on her block of rundown apartment buildings were thrilled.

The Latinos on Blythe Street in Panorama City were about to receive what they consider a rare luxury: medical and dental care.

"I haven't been to the doctor in more than 10 years," said Galvez, 31. "It's too expensive. I don't have the money."

So, on a crisp and warm Sunday morning, volunteers from the Buddhist charity corps Tzu Chi visited Blythe Street with the Great Love Mobile Clinic, a 35-foot RV transformed into a state-of-the-art dental facility at a cost of $250,000. The vehicle is equipped with two dental exam chairs, X-ray machines and cupboards full of supplies.

A medical van followed, as did a handful of volunteer doctors, translators and nurses.

On this day they treated about 800 people. Galvez had a physical that included a blood test to screen for diabetes and check her cholesterol levels.

"Most of them had never even been to the doctor before, or the dentist," said Maritza Artan, director of Casa Esperanza (House of Hope), a Panorama City nonprofit agency that helps needy immigrant families on Blythe Street.

Last year the California branch of Tzu Chi--which means compassion and relief in Chinese--launched the mobile clinic program to provide much-needed free medical and dental care for thousands of uninsured people such as Galvez and her neighbors.

About 25 times each year, volunteer doctors caravan into poor neighborhoods throughout California and Mexico and set up camp for a day or two.

The staff of the mobile clinics has treated migrant farmers in Bakersfield and San Bernardino, public housing residents in Fresno and impoverished children in Baja California. They have also visited neighborhoods throughout the Southland.

"You can't imagine some of the things we see," said Dr. Shirley Chen, a volunteer dentist whose private practice is in Arcadia. "Some people have never had their teeth cleaned and most of the people haven't been to the dentist for at least 10 years."

Besides the mobile clinics, Tzu Chi--with roots in Taiwan and a worldwide membership of 5 million--operates a permanent free clinic in Alhambra that annually treats more than 20,000 indigent patients.

Physicals, dental and eye exams, pregnancy tests and acupuncture are among the services offered at the site, which opened in 1993.

"We often see women who are eight months pregnant and have never been to the doctor," said Tzu Chi spokeswoman Debra Boudreaux. "We also see a lot of kids who have fever or ear infections but no access to medication."

The foundation also assists in local and international emergencies and regularly delivers food packages and cleaning supplies to the needy here and abroad.

Tzu Chi has sent supplies to earthquake victims in Taiwan, Turkey and recently El Salvador.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, volunteers distributed medical and food supplies, as well as other practical items.

"We took mobile showers to areas that had no water for weeks," said longtime volunteer Peter Chang, a 57-year-old U.S. Postal worker who lives in Mission Hills and has traveled on Tzu Chi missions to Honduras, Colombia and El Salvador. "During [wild fires] we're not allowed to help fight the fire because we're civilians, but we help by cooking for the firefighters. We help however we can."

Chang has also participated in Tzu Chi's book distribution, in which needy children in the Los Angeles Unified School District--many of them in the Valley--get free books.

Tzu Chi finances its services with private donations--about $3 million a year for its medical clinics alone--and an active L.A. area volunteer corps of about 1,000.

Tzu Chi, which was founded in Taiwan in 1966 by Master Jen Yen, has 130 offices in 34 countries.

In Southern California, the foundation has offices throughout the region, including San Marino, Santa Monica, Torrance, Irvine, Cerritos and San Diego.

About a year ago, Boudreaux said, the organization opened a Northridge office after discovering that the San Fernando Valley has a huge indigent population in desperate need of medical attention.

"A lot of immigrants move to the Valley, so there's a big need for our services," Boudreaux said.

While the group was founded by Buddhists, many of the volunteers are not of that faith, she said, and help is provided for free. Volunteers say they just want to care for the needy.

"It's impressive. They do it with so much compassion and joy," said Casa Esperanza's Artan. "They are like angels."

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