A Classical Musician Strikes a Chord in her Community

Yana Reznik smiles at her piano, holding the masks she helped make.

Inside the University of Chicago Hospital lunchroom, they rummaged through the boxes, finding masks, hand sanitizers, and burritos from Chipotle. One doctor found a mask with a llama on it. Another tried on one covered with little beluga whales. Their gratitude, though muffled by the masks, was audible and visible.

And when Yana Reznik asked if they wanted more masks, they said yes. Of course they did. Still do.

At a time when hospitals are running out of PPE and protective masks and doctors are forced to risk exposure to the coronavirus, Reznik created a fundraiser, PPE and Mask Hunt, which so far has delivered more than 1,700 masks and personal protective equipment to multiple organizations and hospitals.

“I think I am privileged to be able to do that,” Reznik, whose husband is an emergency physician at the University of Chicago hospital, said in a phone interview. “A lot of volunteers who are just sitting at home and making this happen, they don’t see the benefits first-hand, they don’t get to enjoy this incredible rush of joy, and tears running down their cheeks. That’s why I took a video: Because I wanted my volunteers to be able to get inspired and to really, really understand what their difference they’re making through doing this.”

Reznik came up with the idea when reading a Chicago Tribune article that said the federal government had shipped 30,000 surgical masks to the state government when they asked for N95 masks, which, unlike surgical masks, filter out 95 percent of particles from the air.

At first, Reznik became enraged and posted on Facebook that she considered what the federal government did to be a “crime.” But instead of merely criticizing, she decided to help.

“It’s so good for so many people to do something very, very positive when it’s so easy to get depressed and scared,” she said. “And I think fear is the last thing we want right now.”

She started the fundraiser for $10,000 on March 31. In just three weeks, she has raised $8,000, and donated the proceeds to medical and non-medical businesses alike: Advocate Health, Loyola, Swedish Covenant, University of Illinois Health, and Northwestern and Heartland Alliance, AL Gelato and Friedman Place.

Reznik, a world-renowned classical musician who sold out Carnegie Hall in her debut in 2004, is striking a chord in her community. Some of the volunteers are from the RefugeeOne organization and Artists Resource Mobilization. They’re paid small stipends because the coronavirus swallowed their jobs. As a freelance artist who has been self-managed for years, organizing her concerts, promoting her brand, and performing shows, Reznik can relate.

Reznik’s work has inspired the volunteers. Ev Greenberg owns a business, RCubed, which consolidates recycling information for customers, but since storefronts shut down, she has found time on her hands. She joined PPE and Mask Hunt a week ago and has enjoyed coordinating volunteers, as well as driving to pick up and deliver masks.

“It’s a great group to work with because they’re super organized and they get things done,” Greenberg said.

Reznik, who spearheads the Chicago area, works alongside Lilia Kogan, who handles the north shore and northwestern suburbs. Like Reznik, Kogan is a former Soviet immigrant who lives in Wilmette. They had met once at one of Reznik’s piano concerts, but when Kogan saw the YouTube video about the University of Chicago Hospital’s lack of masks and PPE, she wanted to help.

“I think she has a great vision,” Kogan said. She can set up some very ambitious goals and find creative ways to get to those goals.”

The volunteers work remotely, picking up the materials from sewers in the community or businesses like Joann Fabric and Pillow Guys, and drops the final products off at either Kogan’s house in Wilmette, Reznik’s house in Chicago, or a few other collection points in suburbs such as Buffalo Grove, Morton Grove, and Westmont. They wash the materials before handing them out, and Reznik suggests that hospital workers wash them again for good measure. Her team practices social distancing in the pickup and drop-off situations and waits for two days to touch the masks once receiving them. The masks are not considered a replacement for N95 masks, but as an extra layer of protection, so the “effectiveness varies,” but the doctors need whatever they can get. Reznik is simply happy to provide.

The demands of the job have begun to consume Reznik’s waking hours. Her main priorities are to care for her 7-month-old child and teach lessons via Zoom for the New Music School in Chicago. But while she spends two to three hours teaching, the fundraiser, she said, is 24/7.

She is asked if she’s afraid of the virus.

“Am I afraid to die?” she responded. “My husband put it this way: ‘You either survive and we all get over it or we die.’ I don’t know. What good does it do for me to sit there all day long and think about that? It doesn’t do anything. That’s the risk we take to make a difference.”

Fearlessness drives Reznik. Growing up in Moscow, Russia, a 9-year-old Reznik was supposed to join the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, a mass youth organization in the communist Soviet Union, along with 4,000 classmates. She refused. Didn’t see the upside. If this had happened a couple of years before, her parents might have been put in jail, but she took the risk.

Fearlessness has brought Reznik this far — and it has served her well. Performing alongside Carrie Underwood at the ACM Awards broadcast live on PBS in 2010. Directing the Southern California Brahms Festival in 2008, where she played the complete piano chamber works of Johannes Brahms. Giving a Ted Talk in 2012, where she played Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum №3 and discussed its meaning.

“Love as long as you can, because the time will come you will stand at the grave and mourn,” Reznik had said in the Ted Talk about the meaning of the song, which was originally a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath.

Reznik isn’t done yet. While they initially only crafted masks, the PPE and Mask Hunt have started delivering nurse caps due to a specific request from Swedish Covenant Hospital, as well as face shields courtesy the Chicago COVID-19 3D Printing Group. Since Reznik started the fundraiser, more volunteers are requesting employment, demand for masks is rising, and the volunteer base is expanding. Additional financial backing is needed.

Pinpointing which organizations are most in need of masks is also becoming increasingly difficult. But that doesn’t stop Reznik. The next step is to deliver masks to a couple of different organizations housing World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors.

“It’s so easy to do because I don’t have to convince people that this is necessary. They know this is necessary and they want to help.”

To volunteer with the PPE and Mask Hunt Drive, email maskdrive2020@gmail.com

To donate money to the PPE and Mask Hunt Drive, visit https://www.facebook.com/donate/171075023868668/

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

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