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A place for coffee, to feel comfortable Accepted: The cafe at the Growth Center provides an opportunity for socialization and work for the mentally ill.


If Peg Zabawa gets her way, those who visit the Growth Center Cafe in east Columbia to indulge in a cup of coffee and dessert will gain more than calories.

"It's a spiritual thing," says the 78-year-old Harper's Choice resident, who is volunteering her skills baking bread and dishing out desserts. "I want people to feel comfortable, at home and accepted."

Such feelings are necessary for the mentally ill who visit or work at the cafe, which opened last summer in the Riverwood Center on Old Columbia Road near Kings Contrivance village.

"We are always looking for ways of normalization for our members," says Alice Mark, director of the Growth Center, an agency operated by the Bureau of Mental Health and Addictions that provides rehabilitation for the mentally ill.

"One of the things that we work on is interpersonal skills and integration into the community," Mark says. "What more wonderful way to do that than through the cafe?"

Zabawa is a former music teacher in Baltimore. She used to operate the popular Mrs. Z's cafe in Harper's Choice village. Then, the Growth Center was in nearby Kahler Hall, and the mentally ill would regularly visit for a discount lunch.

When the restaurant burned down in 1979, Zabawa says, she managed to pay her debts, but decided she was too tired to reopen the restaurant. But she continued her association with the mentally ill, occasionally visiting the Growth Center, where she played games with them.

Three years ago, Mark and Zabawa met at a birthday party for a friend who had suffered from mental illness. The two women started talking about a cafe that could provide socialization and, at the same time, job skills for Growth Center members.

Zabawa volunteered to manage the cafe -- with Mark's help.

The cafe -- still not officially named -- is open to the public Fridays from 1: 30 p.m. to 2: 30 p.m. Menus vary from week to week and may include a choice of three or four desserts, or home-baked bread and soup.

Zabawa's responsibilities include planning menus, preparing food and teaching her cooking and baking skills to anyone who is interested, though she insists that every task is a "team" effort.

She works to create a less-institutionalized environment. Fresh flowers adorn each table. Brightly colored covers sewn by Zabawa camouflage the metal backs of the chairs. Watercolor paintings from a young friend and artist hang from the windowless walls. Classical music plays softly in the background.

Zabawa says there is much more to be done to make the cafe as attractive as possible.

"I want a piano in here," she says, as she surveys the room. "We need some furniture, perhaps a sideboard, and something to replace the fluorescent lighting so that people who visit the cafe will have the feeling of being at home rather than in an institutionalized setting."

But all of that takes money and, with talk of future funding problems, Zabawa and Mark worry about what lies ahead. In the meantime, they are operating the cafe on a shoestring budget -- barely covering their expenses -- and are constantly looking for ways to economize.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Zabawa, Mark and Betty-Jane Tessmer, a volunteer whose son is a Growth Center member, scurried around the kitchen and delegated responsibilities to a few Growth Center members.

Robin Mexia, 31, skillfully ladled Swedish cream into glass goblets -- purchased by Zabawa at a flea market for 5 cents apiece -- and then topped the dessert with blueberries. Next, she placed paper doilies on dessert plates, arranged the centerpieces and, as hostess, cheerfully steered some 45 people who had assembled there to the drinks and utensils.

"I had worked at McDonald's and I know a little bit about working with the public," she said.

Relaxing over a cup of coffee were Growth Center members Tim Moals and Jon Sheffer, both 34, who said they had stopped in after bowling to socialize.

Moals, who cleans the cafe after hours and launders the tablecloths, says he enjoys the friendly atmosphere of the cafe because it gives him something to do.

Sheffer agreed: "If you don't have anything to do during the day, you get stressed. If I didn't come here, I would get myself in trouble. I love being here -- it's like a family."

Zabawa compares the cafe to her restaurant. "Why did the people come back to Mrs. Z's? It wasn't the food that people missed; it was that feeling of openness and that people were comfortable and felt accepted.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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