Spirit of healing lives inside Mrs. Z's home

Belonging: Peg Zabawa, the former owner of Mrs. Z's in Columbia, helps those recovering from mental illness by giving them a place to meet, eat and feel a part of society .

April 20, 2001|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mrs. Z's, Peg Zabawa's legendary Columbia restaurant, is still missed by many for its homemade soups and breads, and, most of all, for its warm, nurturing atmosphere. Though the restaurant burned down in 1979, the spirit of Mrs. Z's lives on in her home-based ministry, Saturday Nite Live.

Zabawa's ministry welcomes into her home individuals from the Growth Center, a day program at Kahler Hall for people recovering from mental illness. Her home is a place where people can find warmth and acceptance while in transition from mental institutions to mainstream society.

About 15 to 20 guests arrive at Zabawa's the second Saturday of every month to share her homemade bread and soup, dessert, and time for games and talk.

Zabawa also invites these guests to share holidays with her. Zabawa's relationship with the Growth Center began in the 1970s, when it asked her if clients could be brought into Mrs. Z's as a first restaurant experience after being released from mental institutions. Zabawa agreed, and a Thursday lunch date was established, with Growth Center clients eating together at a long "Amish table."

"Nobody made them feel uncomfortable That's the whole core," Zabawa says. "That was a good time and a nice, peaceful feeling. A couple of them were very noticeably ill and interrupted the buffet line, but it didn't bother anybody."

After Mrs. Z's closed, Zabawa's relationship with the mentally ill and with the Growth Center continued. Her friendship with Ann Connor, a mentally ill woman, now deceased, who was a pianist and author of Loyola College's school song, kept her in touch with the plight of the mentally ill. She also met Alice Marks, then director of the Growth Center, at a party. "I thought, `I'll follow this lady anywhere. She's dynamite,'" Zabawa says.

At the Growth Center, Marks and Zabawa started "the Cafe." Zabawa helped decorate the Cafe to make it homelike and brought in light fare once a month. This ended when the Health Department banned outside food from the center. So, about 1994, Zabawa opened her home for Saturday Nite Live.

"The mentally ill people often get isolated, and this is a place they come every month and feel very connected and very loved," says Zabawa, a warm-eyed woman who looks much younger than her 83 years. "The main thing is that the people coming here feel like a family.

"I have to have people around my table," Zabawa adds.

She has converted her townhouse living room into a dining room, dominated by a big wooden table. Earthenware mugs, dried flowers and thick woven carpets create a serene, nurturing atmosphere.

"Peg's ... gift is hospitality and making people loved and accepted," says the Rev. Randy Reinhardt, pastor of New Heritage, Zabawa's church in Ellicott City. "To say Mrs. Z's was a restaurant is almost an insult. It was almost a part of her home. That same atmosphere is here as was there."

"This is like stepping into another world and your cares just fall away," Pat Bohnet says about Zabawa's home.

Bohnet, a consumer advocate at the Howard County Mental Health Authority, has a bipolar disorder and volunteers for Saturday Nite Live. She spends about two hours on the day that Saturday Nite Live meets picking up guests from all over Howard County, many of whom don't drive or can't afford cars.

"Transportation is a big problem in Howard County," she notes. It takes a good deal of time working out the logistics of her route so that nobody gets anxious by having to wait too long. Bohnet drives a 15-passenger van lent by Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"When I was diagnosed with mental illness ... I thought there has to be some way I can help other people," says Bohnet. "I feel God has really blessed me to do this."

Government funding is important to the mentally ill returning to the community, Bohnet stresses. With government subsidies, for example, two or three people can afford to share an apartment that otherwise might be out of reach.

Zabawa feels blessed by her work. "I feel like I have a purpose, my purpose," she says. "I'm so grateful for everyone who has helped me that I feel it's God helping me. ... Getting together and eating breaks down all barriers."

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