Shared joy is a double joy, shared sorrow is half a sorrow.
– Swedish proverb
Volunteerism: An Integral part of their lives
Peggy Liou, 58, attributes her volunteerism to Tenny Tsai, 59. “She is the biggest hearted person I have ever met,” she said, of her good friend. “Once you start it [volunteerism], that’s it; there’s no turning back.” Liou worked full time outside of the home, raised her son and daughter, now 31 and 23, respectively, but still found time to volunteer her time to charitable organizations. The key to volunteerism for multi-tasking mothers, and really, anybody, according to Liou, is to “surround yourself with friends who are into giving back. It makes it fun – like a friends and family event.” Tsai would often call Liou to volunteer, and Liou joked, “You can’t say no to Tenny.”
Liou’s daughter, Christina, who is Tsai’s goddaughter, recalled growing up participating in fundraising events that soon became annual family traditions. “It [volunteer work] was a part of our lives,” the elder Liou said. Every October, for example, the two families participate in the Self-Help for the Elderly‘s Golden Gate Walkathon and the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s in San Francisco. The purpose of the walk is to raise people’s awareness and raise fund. In June, they attend the Self-Help for the Elderly’s annual Longevity Gala with family and friends, an annual event which raises between $400,000 and $500,000 to fund the nonprofit organization’s services. In the past, Liou has helped organize and provide the entertainment for the gala.
There are so many charitable organizations to support – from prevention and finding cures to diseases and environmental protection to elimination of hunger and homelessness locally, nationally, and globally – that choosing where to invest one’s time and energies can be daunting. The decision is made easy, according to Liou, when you choose “where your heart is.” In the last six years, since her daughter entered Stanford University, Liou became more involved in education for both the young and the elderly.
Liou pointed out that the elderly rarely get much attention. Tsai, who was very close to her grandmother and was one of her main caregivers the last 10 years of her grandmother’s life, became passionate about issues around the elderly. Another good friend of hers introduced her to Self-Help for the Elderly when Tsai was asked to serve lunches to the elderly and drive the elderly participants for the walkathons. Gradually, Tsai became more involved and in a greater capacity. Around the time of her grandmother’s passing, Tsai was urged to join the board of the Alzheimer’s Association by a local committee member who said the organization needed an advocate who could speak on behalf of a more diverse community. Tsai served on the local board for seven years, following by eight years of service on the national board. Tsai’s passion and her commitment to the elderly were inherited by her daughter, Elisha Bonny, 29, Liou’s goddaughter, who is a nurse practitioner with a specialty in geriatrics.
Turning adversity into opportunity in order to give more
Just as Tsai’s life experiences informed her volunteerism, Liou’s triumph over breast cancer is leading her to new ways of giving. “Any harsh experience is a learning experience: I got cancer for a reason,” Liou said. Whereas last year’s goal was to recover and make three trips to China, her goal for this year is to “pick up a little more volunteer work” – as if she doesn’t have enough on her plate. Liou has been talking with cancer patients and is hoping to do more. She is especially keen to change the prevalent attitude among Asian patients who believe their cancer is a punishment from God for some transgression they had committed. “If I can share anything positive with people – that’s my calling,” she said.
Tsai can relate to Liou’s gift of feeling blessed. When Tsai’s grandmother passed away, she felt a void, which is common among primary caregivers. Tsai recalled going to her grandmother’s bedroom and staring at her empty bed, wondering if her own life was finished. When she began volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association – visiting with elderly people and comforting family members of the elderly, and then participating in policy development and supporting research for cures – her own grief was lessened. “It was also a way to lessen people’s burden,” she said.
Friends, family, and faith
When Liou met her oncology doctor for the first time, he told her he could tell on the first visit which cancer patients had better recovery and survival rates. Studies have shown that chances are greater when the patient was healthy before contracting cancer (that the patient didn’t have other health conditions prior) and how many family and friends accompany the patient to treatments and doctor visits. Faith, family, and friends have been fueling Liou’s recovery. The “three F’s,” as Liou calls them, have always played important roles in both Liou’s and Tsai’s lives.
At the high-tech company where they met back in 1979, Tsai and Liou had befriended a coworker, Paul Roth, and the three formed a strong bond and friendship, which resulted in the three families taking vacations together. On walks at work, Tsai and Liou became the eyes for Roth, who had lost his sight at the age of 28 in a chemistry lab accident, by describing the physical world around them. At the same time, Roth helped them “see life more in-depth,” according to Tsai. Liou agreed, adding, “We helped him see with our eyes, but he helped us to see with the heart, to see things differently.” When Tsai and Liou came to Roth with their problems, he listened to them without passing judgment and in doing so helped them resolve their own issues through talking it out.
When Roth passed away in 2005, a small foundation was set up, and every year the Roth and Tsai children determine which organization will receive the donation. “It is a wonderful way for them to learn how to work together for a good cause,” Tsai said. The three families come together every year on the day of Roth’s passing, though Tsai points out that they celebrate his life by continuing to be involved with each other’s lives. Tsai and Liou have attended Roth’s two daughters’ and their children’s births, baptisms, and birthday parties, and the three families are planning a trip to Switzerland, Roth’s homeland, in 2014.
Faith intervened to preserve the two women’s friendship when Liou was first diagnosed and they clashed over what kind of treatment and which hospital to choose. With her college degree in clinical science and her understanding of the severity of the diagnosis, Tsai believed her friend should participate in clinical trials at the University of California at San Francisco. Liou, however, didn’t want to travel to San Francisco from her home in Los Altos, even though Tsai offered to drive her for every treatment, and instead opted for chemotherapy at El Camino Hospital. When Tsai found out, she cried, believing she was going to lose her friend. While Tsai admitted to being stubborn, Liou pointed out that Tsai merely wanted the best care for her good friend.
Unhappy with the decision, Tsai nevertheless accompanied Liou to her first round of chemotherapy. Tsai offered a prayer before treatment, holding hands with Liou’s husband, Leo, and daughter, Christina. When Tsai concluded the prayer, Liou’s oncology nurse responded behind them, saying, “I love Jesus, too.” Her response was a spiritual confirmation for Tsai, who said, of that moment, “I surrendered my will to God, and I realized our friendship really took me to a different level that I have to trust.” Tsai had to trust God and love Peggy, and in doing so, she had to trust her friend’s decision and let her live her own life. “If I love her and care for her, I have to totally accept that, whether I like it or not,” she said. Tsai believed that this trial strengthened their friendship and made Liou’s journey not just a medical journey but a spiritual journey.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Liou said, of all the prayers that family and friends offered on her behalf, and even the prayers of people she didn’t know from Tsai’s prayer group. Despite the difficult time, Tsai said, “There was a lot of joy around us.” Liou said she could feel the strength and the power of prayer that was offered before the “poison” was put into her body during treatments. “I could feel the energy,” Liou said. “God’s grace is there, ready for us to draw from,” Tsai said, though oftentimes it is blunted by human will and wisdom when it comes to wanting to make our own decisions. Tsai came to realize that the type of treatment or hospital didn’t really matter in the end; what mattered was trusting in God to take care of her good friend.
Looking forward to the future
Liou is currently fundraising for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and volunteering her time at the American Cancer Society’s Discovery Shop (243 Main Street, Los Altos, CA 94022, 650. 949.0505). When Liou was undergoing treatment, Ruth Jeng, board chairperson and founder of PEACH Foundation, realized that “time doesn’t wait for anyone” and that she needed to do more so long as she was healthy. Acting on that revelation, in addition to the Chinese adage of “do good deeds” and the cultural responsibility of taking care of family, Jeng increased the quota for sponsorships from 400 students to 600 students in 2012 and raised 2013’s goal to 900 students. Liou worried about how the additional students would get funded, and then a sponsor from Taiwan, where an equivalent organization also operates, emerged. While Liou called it “a miracle,” she said, “It also confirms our belief in ‘just do it’ attitude.”
Tsai, who turns 60 this year, has been pondering her “second life.” Tsai sees her profession as a commercial real estate broker not as a series of business transactions but as a ministry. She is currently searching for a daycare for a church that wants to provide this service to families in need. She continues to work with the elderly, ensuring that their dignity and quality of life remain intact. She finds the greatest satisfaction with one-on-one visits with the elderly, helping them through the last stage of their lives. Tsai tries to spend as much time with her parents, children, and friends, trying to carry out her maxim: “Live like there’s no tomorrow.” Sometimes, Tsai admits, she can be accused of doing too much – juggling career, family commitments, and volunteerism. That said, she is merely living out her philosophy of “do[ing] everything today.”
Tsai experienced a revelation after one of her high school friends recently died of ovarian cancer. Tsai’s visits over the duration of 10 months didn’t change the outcome. What changed, however, was making her friend’s life as well as her own life “more bearable” during those visits. It was difficult for Tsai to watch her friend suffer and to let her go. Despite the physical pain, Tsai’s friend found great comfort in their friendship and in having Tsai be there with her. “If I can be the little buffer or little agent to be there, other people make my life more acceptable,” Tsai said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Back in July 2012, when Tsai was looking at the PEACH Foundation kids, she wondered how she was giving them hope. “It’s not the one hundred fifty dollars or two hundred fifty dollars a year,” she concluded. “It’s the touch you gave the kids, the hug, and you being there. That’s the crucial word – that you’re being there for them.” At the many crossroads in their lives, Tsai and Liou have been there for one another, holding one another’s hand, listening to each other’s problems and in their listening helping them sort out the issues and resolve the problems themselves. “That,” Tsai concluded, as Liou nodded and smiled, “is what a good friend is all about.”