26 March

The Masks We Wear: Breaking Through Barriers

by Jon Katz

Today was the day of the health care masks. The day I learned how badly the Mansion needs some, the day Maria was once more able to use her art for good. The day I appreciate the two institutions that have opened their hearts and people to me and helped me do this work. And now, it really matters.

It took me a couple of years to connect with the right institutions for me and the Army Of Good to work with.

I started visiting upscale assisted care facilities, but felt I wasn’t really needed, they had plenty of money and lots of activities.

They liked dogs, but the dogs weren’t essential.

I felt the same thing at Saratoga Hospital. They loved having dogs walk around to pre-selected patients for an hour or two, but did not grasp the power of dogs to elevate emotions in the sick and spark healing. The good therapy dogs need to be a part of the institution, not just a cute and occasional visitor.

It wasn’t the right place for me and Zinnia to work.

The Mansion and Bishop Maginn got this idea right away.

I started out with RISSE, the refugee and immigrant center in Albany, then moved to some private schools, who agreed to admit refugee students on full scholarships in the name of diversity.

Then I found the Mansion Assisted Care Facility, and then Bishop Maginn High School. It all clicked. And now, in this time of great need, we are so much better prepared to really help.

RISSE was and perhaps is the kind of place that was eager to take the money I was raising but was openly hostile, even xenophobic, about letting me in to document the work I was doing and the money I was spending. They blocked every effort I made to get inside and see for myself.

They just didn’t want me around, I could feel it and see it, and they made it clear. It was the kind of bureaucracy I just couldn’t work with.

So I got away from them, which was painful.  RISSE does a lot of great work. Those refugee children need all the help they can get, and I so loved building them a library they could sit in and use.

I didn’t quit or even think of quitting. This work is important to me. I kept looking. Perseverance does pay off, especially in a good cause.

At the Mansion and Bishop Maginn, we are scrupulous about getting permission for photos or any kind of interview. Their first priority is also the welfare of the students, but they help, not hinder this work.

Every one of our Wish Lists for both places has been successful.

They both instantly grasped the power of images and authenticity and the benefits that follow. People attach to human beings, not institutions. My job is to present the humans, tell their stories. Then it’s up to the Army Of Good to decide how much they wish to help.

I don’t kid myself, ultimately the power is with them.

And we have helped transform each of these institutions, in small but meaningful ways.

I am not a simple person, not easy to understand. Lots of people have had trouble figuring me out. So it’s a miracle to me to be so comfortable and welcome at the Mansion and Bishop Maginn.

I have blessedly never felt hostility or mistrust at either place. And I work hard to earn that trust.

It takes time and patience to penetrate organizations and cultures, and they often have good reason to be fearful. But at the Manson and Bishop Maginn, it feels like family, I just feel at home. Maybe I’m the one who changed.

The Mansion is interesting on many levels.

They almost never ask for help, they are busy and swamped with paperback and bureaucratic regulations and older and often sick, people.

But this work depends on connections with people.

Kassi Garmley, the director of the Mansion, is open and easy to talk to. She is honest with me and supportive every day. I see  how hard she works, I am careful about making myself a bother.

And I know many of the aides well now. They are very discreet about the residents, they do often let me know if I can help.

My work inside – the therapy dogs, story-reading, meditation class – has helped me understand the real needs and emotions of the residents, older people at the edge of life. The more I know them, the more I can help, the better I can capture the need and try to address it.

But there has to be somebody on the inside letting me in. Relationships take time.

This access to me and my camera has also helped to build the Army Of Good into…well, an army of good.

There is a trust between me and these good people there also. Trust seems to be at the heart of this work, as our work in this time shows.

At Bishop Maginn, I have a close relationship with Sue Silverstein, who has become a close friend, and Principal Mike Tolan, a warm and hard-working principal who loves every student and fights for them. A fellow Thomas Merton admirer, we get one another.

My friendship with these two has helped me understand the school and what it needs. Today, this is more important than ever. And the Army Of Good knows who they are helping and why.

The masks, like so much else, are a metaphor for our times, and our work.

No one at the Mansion told me the aides were desperate for new masks, they were using and re-using theirs so many times they were wearing out. I learned about this almost by accident, and from the news media reports about mask shortages during the Pandemic.

So I got online and found 200 masks – it was not simple – and they are coming in a week or so. Why didn’t you tell me, I asked one of the administrators? You’ve done enough this month, she said.

Maria spent the afternoon making a dozen masks for now.

I put one of them on my Phrenology Head for the photo above.

Sue Silverstein tells me the same thing when I ask her how I can help. Oh, you’ve done enough. Neither institution is used to much help from the outside world, at least until now.

Sue and I are a wonderful team when something needs to be done and we get the go-ahead from Mike. We’ve done a lot of stuff, and have yet to have a difficult moment. Maybe I’m finally learning how to work within an institution – if I respect them.

For me,  there is no enough, the needs are great and only deepen. What I’ve learned is to work with places that want me and understand what I do.  And to be modest and focused in our work. Small acts of great kindness, not big ones.

There are not too many of these institutions, they are increasingly rare in the Corporate Nation,  but the ones that are here are precious to me and to the work we are doing.

They are at the core of every good thing we do.



  1. Maria’s masks are pretty (of course!) but unfortunately aren’t effective against the Coronavirus. Even surgical masks aren’t the best. ***N95 respirator masks protect from airborne particles and from liquid contamination. These are for health workers not for the general public. ***

    It’s important not to spread misinformation and have homemade masks fail to protect our front line health workers. It is frightening that there’s a shortage of personal protective equipment for those that are most vulnerable and most necessary to the public’s health.

    1. Hazel, masks are not only used for protection against coronaviruses. The Mansion is not a hospital, but an assisted care facility, the maks are very effective in fighting off many kinds of infection. Please don’t offer medical advice here on the blog, especially when you don’t know what you are talking about, it is irresponsible. These are not “front line” doctors and nurses, but aides in an assisted care facility that is closed off from the world. Nobody says or thinks they will ward off the coronavirus, they will help curb colds and flue…they are important and urgently needed. I’m not a doctor, if they say they need the masks I will help them get masks.

      1. My goal was merely to inform, and the information I presented is correct and taken from an article written by an infectious disease specialist. He said they are best used for allergies and dust; they do not fit well enough and are not made of proper materials to prevent transmissions of any kind.

        You have only been discussing COVID-19 and did not make it clear that the masks were not for that purpose. Surely you don’t want your readers to think that these are protection for the Coronavirus! I am not here to criticize just share my concerns.

        Keep up your very good work, Jon.

        1. I understand Hazel, I don’t feel competent to give medical advice on my blog, it’s not the place for it, there are many other better sources of information. The masks are what the Mansion asked for and needs and I don’t feel compelled to go into detail about it, since I’m not qualified to do that either. There is a stunning amount of bad and incorrect medical information pouring out all over the Internet and I have no way of knowing what is correct and what isn’t, and it’s not the purpose or function of my blog. I’m sure you meant to help and thanks for that, but my readers have no way of knowing who you are or what you know or whom to trust.

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