Superheroes for an Super-Aged Society

By Elliott Hodgkin

In 2001, the Concord Foundation was founded in Miaoli County by local businessman Brandon Lin (林光清), 61. Inspired by his father’s unwavering devotion to the community, Lin wanted to extend a hand to the growing elderly population. Relying mainly on volunteers, the foundation prepares and delivers lunchboxes to two hundred elderly citizens across four townships in the county. Those who benefit often have no families and have lost the physical and mental strength to care for themselves. Eighteen years on, the staff and volunteers at Concord are still working to Lin’s original philosophy: ignite yourself and illuminate others.

For the past year, Carey Tsai (蔡凱利), 57, a retired citizen of Houlong, Miaoli, has helmed the foundation as CEO. Before sitting down to talk about her involvement with Concord, she held a small lunchtime concert for diners at a Korean restaurant. Singing, she thought, would have been the busiest part of her retirement. But Lin had been badgering Tsai to come and work for his foundation for a while and she could not resist the challenge.

“He needed his next CEO to be full-time. I was still a high school principal at that point and he kept asking me when I was going to retire. I had never really heard of Concord before, but some of my students had volunteered for their events. I knew Mr. Lin and admired his family and their generosity in the community. He is my idol,” she says with a wide smile.

Tsai’s work as the first full-time CEO has centred around uniting and leading the fifty volunteers and beneficiaries they serve from Monday to Friday. Being a principal more than prepared her for this challenge and she quickly proved herself as the driving force Concord needed. She explains how for two years prior to her arrival, an idea to replace the paper lunchboxes with waste-free stainless-steel ones had been batted around, but amounted to nothing. In her first month, Tsai successfully made the idea a reality.

“Communication is the key to leadership,” she notes, “and my secret to good communication is to think about other people’s points of view.”

Such clarity and empathy within the foundation has created a balance which, Tsai feels, is the lifeblood of community. There is a constant back and forth conversation between volunteers and beneficiaries. Tsai does not stand and dictate. She listens and tries to find the most harmonious way forward.

Every day Tsai spends one or two hours in the kitchens as the lunches are being prepared before being whisked away for delivery. Occasionally, she will accompany volunteers on the deliveries, some of which are as far as two hours away. Most important to Tsai is that she and the volunteers eat together. After the kitchens close around midday, everyone convenes to talk about their lives, the highs and the lows, over the same lunchboxes being distributed across the county. She believes that each time, they all grow tighter as a unit and eating the lunchboxes allows them to constantly assess whether they are serving their purpose. Do they taste good? Are they filling? She needs to know.

The beneficiaries are also upfront with the delivery volunteers about the contents of their lunchbox. Some may think the soup might have been too plain or the rice too hard. Beyond that, there is even a cultural dichotomy Tsai has had to deal with. Miaoli County is primarily divided into Hakka and Taiwanese ethnic groups, and the Hakka population like their food salty, something which is not as appealing to the Taiwanese. But the parameters of funding mean that such diversity cannot be catered to. The kitchen has limited equipment and just one professional chef. The steady rise and fall in numbers each day as beneficiaries pass away and new ones are taken on has ultimately made finding a middle ground crucial.

Nowhere else is Tsai’s “the more you give, the more you get” attitude more evident than when speaking with the volunteers. Wang Xiufeng (王秀鳳), unlike most volunteers who are retirees, has held down a job while helping prepare lunches every Friday for the last eleven years. Her co-volunteer Ou Shouqin (歐守琴) even works a night shift until 7 am before heading to the kitchens an hour later. For them, each Friday is the highlight of the week, where friends come together and give back to society. The gains of the role cannot be ignored. Friends inspired by their work, but with less time, often donate money for supplies and others have even started replicating Concord’s work by making lunches for those who live beyond the catchment area.

For a long time, Wang has taken her children and grandchildren to see how she gives back and, in turn, providing an opportunity for them to feel grateful for the lives that they have. She wants to “plant the seed” with the hopes that they will one day follow her path. But it cannot be forced, she states, affirming that benevolence should come from a genuine desire to help. When she proudly mentions that her grandson has donated his pocket money and red envelope to the foundation, it is clear that her small effort to cultivate the next generation of volunteers is paying off.

“That is why she is my role model,” chimes in Ou, “now I take my children along, too.” But Wang bashfully brushes this off.

As for the demands, patience is a quality they believe one must have in no short supply. Patience and through it all a constant optimism about the work they do. Coming into the kitchen to find that they need to make one less lunchbox than the day before can only mean one thing. “But that’s life,” says Wang, “and we have to keep moving for the others,” as Ou adds “it’s just good news that we are still serving so many people.”

Looking to the future, Tsai wants to focus on developing the balance between physical and mental health, which means tackling head-on the all-too-common isolation of senior citizens. Every delivery is a social interaction, and a good conversation can almost be as restorative as a square meal. Last year, Tsai organised an event that brought the beneficiaries together with high school students. It was such a hit that she wants to arrange gatherings of that nature on a regular basis. Like the volunteers, she has found bringing children into the picture injects a new lease of life. The exchange of stories in Hakka, Taiwanese and Mandarin has built a bridge between the generations.

Above it all, Tsai wants to ensure children will grow to appreciate their lives and know how to care for the ones who paved the way. Taiwan may be a society in distress, but its people are coming to the rescue.

Special thanks: Mandy Chen (陳詩薇)

Elliott Hodgkin is a student at the University of Leeds and has a case of wanderlust that he just can’t shake.