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Compassion's on the Sunday Suppers menu in Columbia

Frances McDonough of Owen Brown, who was volunteering through her church, St. John the Evangalist Catholic Church, prepares pumpkin pie with her grandchildren Kelly McDonough, left, 3, and Abby McDonough, 9, both of Stevens Forest, during the NAME Sunday Suppers program at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.
Frances McDonough of Owen Brown, who was volunteering through her church, St. John the Evangalist Catholic Church, prepares pumpkin pie with her grandchildren Kelly McDonough, left, 3, and Abby McDonough, 9, both of Stevens Forest, during the NAME Sunday Suppers program at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia. (Photo by Steve Ruark, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A National Alliance on Mental Illness Sunday Supper in Columbia this month had all the traditional Thanksgiving favorites: freshly-cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and rolls.

The supper, part of a monthly program for area adults living with mental illness, even included pumpkin pie.

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"The food is excellent," said Easter Kim, a Columbia resident and supper attendee for more than 10 years. "For a lot of people, this is the only chance to get a nutritious, hot meal."

A hearty, nutritious meal isn't the only reason for the event. NAMI Howard County's Sunday Suppers also feed diners' souls.

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For two hours, local church members served home-cooked meals at the Florence Bain Senior Center while diners like Kim talked and laughed with their peers, enjoyed live music and even made new friends in an environment not linked to treatment.

"At Sunday Suppers, there's no judging," said Beverley Francis-Gibson, executive director of NAMI Howard County. "It's a safe space. It's communal. It's family."

Each month, between 40 and 80 people participate in Sunday Suppers, one of the many NAMI Howard County programs to increase awareness of mental illness and support adults, as well as their friends and families, living with the illness.

Founded in 1979, NAMI Howard County is the county's largest grassroots mental health group, running everything from peer and parent support groups and a mental health help line to educational programs for teachers, police officers and community and church groups.

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The organization is funded through donations, grants and membership fees. All programs are free and open to anyone, regardless of NAMI membership.

Sunday Suppers are held the third Sunday of each month. NAMI volunteers and staff from human service organizations like Humanim drive many of the diners to the event, while members of local churches take turns providing, preparing and serving the meals.

The program began 32 years ago when Joe Friend, Harvey Zorbaugh and several other NAMI members discovered there were few opportunities for people to socialize without the stigma so often attached to mental illness.

Friend and Zorbaugh, both parents to adults with mental illness, have remained involved ever since.

"Mentally ill people can be very isolated and alone," Zorbaugh said. "This provides them [with] a social event."

Social interaction is especially important for people with mental illness around the holidays, Gibson said.

"A lot of people are actually sad, depressed or alone during the holidays," she said.

According to a recent NAMI survey, 24 percent of people diagnosed with a mental illness find the holidays — the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day — make their condition "a lot" worse. Forty percent said the holidays make their condition "somewhat" worse.

"For people who are struggling with mental illness … it's kind of like holding up a mirror to what they don't have in their lives," said Katie Gerwin, NAMI Howard County's director of programs and development. "You get the best support from people who can understand where you are in the process."

During the Sunday Suppers Thanksgiving meal, diners spent the first hour socializing with NAMI volunteers, staff and their peers.

Michael David Ryan, a Savage-Guilford resident, said he attends the suppers every month and always tries to sit next to someone he knows.

"I look forward to the meal," he said. "I'm a people person. I like to talk to people, but I don't ever pressure anybody."

Back in the kitchen, three generations of the McDonough family prepared the feast.

Fran McDonough, an Ellicott City resident, warmed meat from three, 25-pound turkeys in the oven while her five grandchildren organized raw vegetables and salad dressing as an appetizer.

McDonough and her husband, Bob, began volunteering at Sunday Suppers in 1992 on behalf of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

"It's very important to me to give back to people that are less fortunate," she said. "I just like doing this because it makes me smile."

It also makes her grandchildren smile. All five happily stood behind the food tables, serving diners one by one.

"Can I have some dark meat?" one woman asked as she moved down the line.

"Sure," said Abby McDonough, 9, as she placed several pieces of turkey on the woman's plate.

"Mashed potatoes?" asked Abby's 8-year-old cousin, Breccan Liddy.

Yes, the woman nodded.

Light-hearted interaction is typical during Sunday Suppers, challenging the unfounded belief that people with mental illness often exhibit violent behavior, Gibson said.

"Unfortunately, stigma is one of our biggest hurdles," she said. "People are afraid. When you hear mental illness, because of the way the media portrays it, it's always something tragic."

In most cases, people living with mental illness are just like everybody else, she said.

"They want the same things," Gibson said. "They just have a brain disease that prevents them from acting normal."

Zorbaugh agreed.

"We've been doing this 32 years times 12," he said. "We've never had a fight, never had anybody hurt. That's really impressive to me."

For more information about NAMI Howard County or to make a donation, go to nami.org/sites/NAMIHowardCounty or call 410-772-9300.

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