In a time when division continues to run rampant in the political sphere, author Jon Katz has enlisted members from nearly every state in the country to be a part of his “Army of Good.”

Katz founded the “army” after the 2016 election and the political turbulence that followed. “I watched political sniping going on all the time and I have no desire to be a part of that and neither do many other people out there,” Katz said.

Made up of Katz’s three million readers that annually visit his blog — — they all share a common mission: to do good rather than argue about what good means. When first founded, Katz and his army focused its mission on The Mansion at South Union, a Medicaid-assisted care facility in Cambridge.

The group of perfect strangers also has been critical in helping the students and families at Bishop Maginn High School. When the school shut down because of the coronavirus and went to distance learning, within four days, the army raised enough money for 27 laptops for children who didn’t have a home computer.

With the students’ educational needs met, other needs still remained great.

“(Bishop Maginn’s) Sue (Silverstein) alerted me to this and I said, ‘What can we do to help?’ And she said she was hearing from people she’s never heard from before, who really were just running out of money for food,” Katz said. “And that really got me cranked up. I remember saying to myself this is not going to happen — nobody in this community is going to go hungry.”

Within a few weeks, over $16,000 in Price Chopper gift cards were mailed to students and their families, many of whom are first-generation immigrants. Katz posted the need on his blog and donations poured in overnight and haven’t slowed since.

“I mention the gift card program almost every day because it’s the internet and people have a lot of interactionism,” he said. “So everyday we’ve been doing it, there’s only been one or two days where I haven’t received gift cards in the mail.”

The majority of donations range from $20-40 and come from The Army of Good, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany and Maginn alumni donations.

“They’ve lost their jobs, there’s nothing coming in; the refugees in particular are not entitled to things like stimulus checks, those things won’t go to them,” said Silverstein, who serves as head of the theology department and teaches art at Bishop Maginn. “So if they’re out of work, they’re out of work and some of them are sick, quarantined; there’s a whole bunch of different reasons why they’re hurting so it’s been a great program.”

Katz, a descendent of Russian and Polish immigrants, has always been drawn to helping refugees. He started working with RISSE, or Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, a family-based center nestled in Albany’s Pine Hills neighborhood that equips newcomers to build sustainable lives by offering language and literacy instruction, as well as support with life skills and integration into U.S. culture and community.

“For me, the idea for the refu­gees is the same as the idea for the Mansion residents: to give people faces and identities, rather than simply make them political slogans and positions to be exploited,” Katz wrote in a blog post.

The Army of Good would raise enough money to provide scholarships to private schools for eight refugee children. Through working with the organization, Katz learned Maginn was another hub for refugee children.

“Everybody talked about how the school really represented the best of the Catholic ideal, which is helping the needy and the vulnerable,” Katz recalls, “So this is a school that had been letting refugee kids in for years, sometimes without even full tuition and was very committed to them, so we just hit it off. It was like they became a part of my family.”

After first meeting with Principal Michael Tolan, Katz soon raised enough money to assemble a school choir, purchase books, microscopes, computers and laptops for the school’s computer lab. The donations also provided snacks for classrooms in case a student didn’t have food, and presents for teachers to give their children come Christmas time. One time, a student couldn’t afford boots in the winter and repeatedly came to school in sandals. The “army” provided the student with proper footwear the following day.

Although Katz is not Christian, he says he has always been a great admirer of Christian ideology when it comes to helping the poor and the needy.
“I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. I’m just pleased and grateful. I love the school; I love the people there. I love that they’re open to me and let me do my work and support it,” Katz said, adding with a chuckle, “It’s a good match, I feel like I’m an unofficial Catholic now.”