23 May

Thank You, Mansion Aides. And The Army Of Good

by Jon Katz

I brought a box of Round House Cafe cookies over to the Mansion this morning – the aides love cookies, and Lisa Carrino, who made the cookies, put a “Thank You” on them, which I thought was both thoughtful and beautiful. Thanks Lisa, that was the perfect message.

Lisa, the co-owner of the Cafe, always asks people who the cookies she bakes are for, so she can make them thoughtfully and individually. Lisa is an artist, she studied at the Rhode Island School Of Design.

I can’t tell you – some of you many know –  how much of a lift a simple thing like cookies can be.

Working at the Mansion is hard work requiring patience, dedication and a particular kind of commitment. Once a week I sponsor a pizza lunch or dinner for the different shifts.

That is a small thing, but that makes a difference too.

More and more I think of the aides in my work, and the need to appreciate and support them. They do amazing work every day for little money and under sometimes very difficult conditions.

They are always there, always patient, always helpful.

I thank them, and I was inspired to also thank the Army Of Good for the support you have given me and the Eh K Pru and the Sakler Moo and the Mansion residents and Bishop Maginn school and choir.

And thanks for also supporting a gifted young artist, Paw Lway Shee of Bishop Maginn, she sold her third painting today, for $50.

We are learning how to do it, small acts of great kindness, for me, this is a faith and loving obligation. I can’t imagine life without it.

I wish I could send all of you a box of these beautiful cookies, but I do thank you from the bottom of my heart.You have touched more people in more ways than you can know.

(P.S. The new Bishop Maginn Choir has 14 out of the 15 music stands they need for their choir. Only one left, $35. The Mansion needs to replenish some of its art supplies, thanks to you, their arts program is booming. They have a modest new wish list.

23 May

Popcorn Machine, New Mansion Wish List

by Jon Katz

There are 13 new and inexpensive items on the Mansion Amazon Wish List.

At a staffer’s suggestion, I bought a circus style popcorn popping machine for the Mansion. Many of the residents love popcorn, a relatively healthy, sugar less and low-calorie snack.

They can use it for ceremonies, gatherings, singing sessions, Karaoke and other gatherings. The popcorn smell alone will be worth it. Thanks for your support in getting it.

This is important, it brings back warm memories – we all remember these carnival popping machines – and gives the Mansion an air of festivity and some excitement. The residents were very happy to see it.

The Army Of Good has supported a wide  range of new and old activities for the residents, their arts program is one of the most active I have ever seen, thanks to Julie Harlin, the Mansion Activities Director.

The Mansion is asking for additional support for its arts and gardening program

Today, the Mansion put up a new Amazon Mansion Wish List, 13 items ranging in price from $6 to $41. The focus is on arts, crafts (paper flowers, Paint), activities and some herbal tea.

Take a look if you wish. And thank you.

23 May

Open Places, Closed Places. The Idea Of Privilege

by Jon Katz

I don’t know all of the things Bonnie does at the Mansion, but I know she works hard and helps keep the place running. She is important.

She works out of the Mansion office, and one of her many admirers came up to me one day recently and said the chairs in the office were old and sagging and uncomfortable. Bonnie’s old chair would literally sick down when she sat in it. Others creaked and groaned.

Would I consider getting Bonnie a special chair and two other chairs to replace the chairs in the office? Of course, I would, I did.  I searched for three good office chairs and had them shipped to the Mansion.

Bonnie is too important to be uncomfortable, and she works too hard. So do the other aides that inhabit that space.

This is one of the ways we help to ease some of the rough spots in a Medicaid assisted care facility. And it works for me because, I realize, the Mansion is open to me.

It’s a simple idea, but it explains the depth and range of my work there, and I have the same feeling at Bishop Maginn.

I am writing this because I often wonder why some places – the Mansion, the Bishop Maginn High School – welcome me and encourage to do what I do. And some haven’t.

A chair is not a big deal, but if you are sitting in it for 10 hours a day and it sags and creaks and wobbles, it’s a very big deal. A facility like the Mansion is an ecosystem, lots of different parts need to work together for all of it work. And the Mansion works very well.

But I’ve learned that some institutions are closed.  I can’t take openness for granted. I’ve brought dogs to many assisted care facilities, none are as open as the Mansion, for which I am grateful.

I am an open place kind of person,  that is my faith and philosophy. I am direct, allergic to rudeness, bureaucracy and hostility. I seek authenticity and transparency, in all things.  I make a lot of people nervous that way.

I say what is on my mind, and have little patience for rudeness,  hostility, arrogance, red tape, or paranoid people.

So the bulb went off in my head over the past few days. I’ve been a bit blind.

Why did I have such a hard time working at RISSE, the immigrant and support center in Albany,  and such an easy time working in all of the other places I work with Red and the Army Of Good doing volunteer and therapy work?

This is something I have been thinking hard about.

This week, working closely with the Mansion staff to buy office chairs, get a new popcorn machine, conduct a Commitment Ceremony for Ruth and Wayne, it began to hit me.

I can’t handle xenophobia. I am not at ease in closed worlds.

And there is a lot of xenophobia in our world, in our country.

Merriam-Webster defines xenophobia as a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners or anything that is strange or foreign.

I was stunned at how wary the refugee organizations were when I recently invited them to ask their most gifted students to apply to some excellent private schools with free tuition. They just wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t talk about it, and we had to go out and find them on our own, through the public school system.

We’ve gotten three children into private schools with full tuition support from the schools. I’m so sorry some of the wonderful young women I met at RISSE never even got to apply.

The odd thing is, that after hearing so many refugees tell the story of their suffering, it is easy to understand why xenophobia thrives in some environments.

It is probably no accident that these institutions I am easy with are staffed and run mostly by white people born in America, not refugees. We did not grow up with the things that shaped their lives. It is easy to forget that sometimes. I’m not into knee-jerk or politically correct thinking, but identity matters in America, just ask any woman or person of color.

And isn’t that the wonderful thing about America? We are not historically a xenophobic culture, at least not until recently. We are the nation of outsiders. I am doing this refugee work because that is what I am fighting to preserve.

It is ironic in my work with refugees that people who suffered from hateful strangers, are sometimes hateful to strangers and frightened of them when they appear. Can anyone blame them?

The Mansion is an open place. They permit me to take photographs (with permission.)  They permit me to be transparent and tell people – and show them – what life in the Mansion is really like, where their money is going, something of critical importance to me, a matter of trust and responsibility.

Like me, they have nothing to hide, and they hide nothing. They trust me to guard privacy and stay out of policy.

They told me last week they are naming the Activity Center in the new Memory Care annex after the Army Of Good, in honor of all the support you have provided. That means a lot to me.

RISSE has never once mentioned the Army of Good, which poured tens of thousands of dollars into their program and their school and soccer team, let alone thanked them.

That did gall me a bit. There are lots of good people out there in the country who stuff $5 and $10 bills into envelopes to try to keep the American Dream alive for these refugee children and their families. Bishop-Maginn teachers and staff have thanked the Army Of Good about 100 times a day.

Does that matter? Yes, it does. But it ought not matter too much. If we do this work, there are no strings attached. Nobody owes us a thing.

At RISSE, the staff was discouraged from talking with me, or working with me. People questioned my motives all the time, they could not fathom the idea of a blog raising money or an Army Of Good, all strangers, more people to to be feared.

I was the almost prototypical stranger, thus feared and mistrusted.

Maria often suggested I quit working with them. But I don’t quit.

I want to learn from this problems, not wallow in them, and I am learning that I misread the cultural differences between me and other people.

I aways run everything I’m doing – everything – by someone in authority at the Mansion or Bishop Maginn. I honor the boundaries there. I never share medical information, take pictures, or write anything of a personal nature without permission.

I never inject myself into the day-to-day decisions made by the management there.

Yet I always feel welcome there, and heard. They get me, there has never been a moment’s friction.

Why did none of that happen at RISSE, the very place I most wanted to help?

The best ideas come from the staff at these institutions.  You have to work to get their trust. When the staff is discouraged from speaking to, ideas wither, people suffer.

Bonnie had the great idea of buying a  carnival like popcorn machine. Most of the residents love popcorn, and it is a relatively healthy and easy-to-provide snack. She had no qualms about approaching me with the idea.

Only one person at RISSE ever approached me with an idea like that, and he got into trouble for it. And it never came to fruition.

When I bought the popcorn machine,  I let Kassi, the Mansion Director, know what I was doing and ordered the machine, which arrived on Tuesday. She was grateful, no drama or confusion.

Yet at RISSE, the absolute opposite was true.

They warned the staff not to talk to me, didn’t want me to visit, were opposed to take photos, didn’t wish to explain where donations from my readers went, wondered what my true motives were, never answered my phone calls – there were one or two exceptions – never showed any signs of appreciation in anyway.

And they never contacted me.

It was hard not to take this personally. I knew if I didn’t visit the children or take pictures, then donations and interest would dry up.

RISSE was the only place in my do-gooding life that didn’t want Red to come. That was a first. Lots of people don’t like me, everybody likes Red.

Bishop Maginn begged me to bring Red every time. I would be afraid to even walk into the Mansion without Red.

In recent weeks, working with Bishop Maginn, taking the Mansion work to a different level, I came to see what the problem was, why the RISSE experience – which should have made them very happy – made them hostile and suspicious.

When I think back on the many institutions I’ve worked with, I’ve had trouble with all of the “closed places,” none with those that are open.Wow, that’s a big idea for me. I’ve wondered for some time about what is wrong with me? It hurt. I invested a lot in this refugee work, and I really hated the feeling that I failed.

Of course immigrant and refugee administrators are xenophobic. They have good reason to be. They have suffered genocide, expulsion, flight from their homes, the losses of friends and family, years in refugee camps, and a frightening and brutal adjustment to a new, and sometimes hostile, country.

Strangers are to be feared and avoided.

I was approaching them as if they were much like me. But we didn’t come from the same place, and this is what people mean when they talk of privilege.

To be privileged is to have a life of advantages, favors, immunities. Knowing many refugees now and speaking to them often, I see much more clearly what the problem was. It was as much mine as theirs.

I’m not excusing their behavior, it was, in many cases, simply outrageous and even self-destructive.  A functioning Board of Directors would have stopped it.

But I am beginning to understand it as a fundamental part of the refugee experience. The people running the Mansion and Bishop Maginn don’t come from the hellish cauldrons that some of the refugees and immigrants have been through.

How could they have learned to be as open as many Americans have traditionally been? We were raised to feel safe and entitled, wasn’t that why we were here?

I can’t expect people to be comfortable with me just because I say so – and many people aren’t. But some people are, and I think the common denominator, the lesson for me is to look for the same openness that I demand of myself and my own work.

And when I can’t find it, to look beyond xenophobia and keep on talking. There is always common ground.

It isn’t that one place is good and the other is bad. All of these places do very important work, and good work.

But some are open places and some are places that are closed to new experiences and transparency. Some people fear transparency, some people, like me, realize it is liberating. I love having no secrets.

I need to consider where I go to do my work.

I need open places.

23 May

Issachar And Asher (Hear Issachar’s Jokes)

by Jon Katz

Issachar and Asher are Pakistani born twins, both 16, and each very different from the other. Issachar is outgoing, funny, Asher is shy, quiet, bookish. Issachar wants to be a surgeon, a vet or a lawyer, he isn’t sure which. Asher hasn’t made up his mind yet.

They are both refugee children,  students at the Bishop Maginn High School in Albany, N.Y. They have had hard lives, to know some of these refugee children is to hear bone-crushing stories that put a hole in your heart. They both know the inside of a shelter.

They are devoted to America and to the prospect of better lives for them, and for their mother, who is raising them alone. it is a disgrace to suggest they don’t belong here, or are criminals.

For all of his troubles,  Issachar is devoted to telling jokes. Principal Tolan has heard them all.  Here are three:

I am not at liberty to share their story but I can tell you they desperately want and need to stay in Bishop Maginn High School and their mother – their father does not live with them. I know Mike Tolan well enough by now to know that nobody gets thrown out of Bishop Maginn for lack of tuition money.

I also know that this is a serious problem for the school, since tuition payments are their primary source of revenue, and when tuition is lowered or can’t be paid, school supplies and programs can’t be purchased. This is why the new Bishop Maginn Amazon Wish List is so important.

We only need four more music stands so the choir can all read the same music at the same time. They cost $35.99 apiece.

We can’t perform miracles, but we fill some of the holes. Small acts of great kindness.

Issachar and Asher are desperate to stay in the  school in the school, which they both love and thrive in. We are helping them do it.

I’ve already raise (an Army of Good angel is paying $5,000 to help them pay their tuition and remain in the school.)

I need $7,000 more next year for the two of them to keep them there securely, and through the end of high school. I’m taking this one year at a time. It would be a tragedy if they had to leave the school.

The Bishop Maginn High School, struggling like so many urban Catholic schools,  has only so much give in its budget and still pay its bills. These two remarkably bright and caring young men need to be safe there.

I really clicked with these two boys yesterday. Issachar loves to tell jokes, and I got a great video of him telling me three of them, he also explained the intricacies of the ending in Avengers Endgame (a separate video I’ll put up later.)

I have to say, I loved these two and bonded with them instantly.

They’re coming to visit the farm.

Hearing the story of these two beautiful and loving boys, I wonder that they can laugh or tell jokes at all. They are brave and full of human spirit.

You can help them if you wish by sending a donation for their tuition to Mike Tolan, Bishop Maginn High School, 75, Park Avenue, Albany, 12202.

And thanks. Please don’t forget to check out the new Bishop Maginn High School Amazon Wish List, all stuff they need.

23 May

Good Morning Bud

by Jon Katz

Bud sleeps in a crate in our bedroom, we love to snuggle up with him, but not in bed, and not all night. There are other things I’d rather snuggle up with in bed. In the morning, when I wake up, I look over to his crate and I see him with his face staring out we me – we cover his crate with a blanket, he needs some calming.

It’s a sweet thing to wake up to, I call Bud our Little Bastard, but he is a very sweet dog and he knows not to bother us until we wake up and get up. We love Bud.

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