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Brown: Cat-loving retired teacher leaves $500k to charity

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Names of many of Chicago’s leading philanthropists grace the PAWS Chicago Medical Center in Little Village.

There’s the Lurie Spay/Neuter Center, Pritzker Family Post-Op Recovery Room, Abbott Treatment Wing and, coming soon, a new portion of the facility named for Zabielski.

Zabielski doesn’t ring a bell? Then let me re-introduce you.

Helen Zabielski was a retired Chicago Public School teacher whose pension amounted to all of about $26,000 a year when she died in 2012 at age 93.

Yet, when Zabielski’s probate was finally closed recently, her estate was able to make a generous gift of $339,610 on her behalf to PAWS, an animal shelter and pet adoption agency known for its no-kill philosophy.

Zabielski, who never married and had no children, also left gifts of $84,905 each to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army for a total charitable outlay of more than $509,000.


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Not bad for an old gal the city of Chicago tried to have declared mentally incompetent in 2003 for failing to properly maintain the eight-unit apartment building where she lived.

It was back then that I first told you about Zabielski, an extremely thrifty woman who loved cats — two traits that led to her problems.

Some might call her a cat lady, but that’s unnecessarily disparaging. And I don’t think she was ever quite as extreme as some of those you hear about.

Let’s just say she gave her five or six house cats a lot of leeway and was also known to feed the feral cats that roamed her neighborhood near Blackhawk Park and hid out in her garden and in unused cars.

That behavior, coupled with a hoarding tendency, caused city officials to try to take her property away when she fell behind on upkeep and ended up without heat or water.

Zabielski had inherited the building from an aunt and uncle who raised her there after her mother died when she was an infant.

Zabielski had always performed most of the work on the property herself, but clearly became overwhelmed by the task when she got older. As she was the only one living there by then, she didn’t see much urgency to complete the work.

Rather than get her some help, the city argued she couldn’t live independently and sought to appoint a guardian to manage her affairs.

Zabielski, believing it was part of an effort by speculators to get control of her property, fought back.

With help from some friends, a wise judge and a little sunlight provided by yours truly, Zabielski was able to work out a very shrewd arrangement.

She donated her building to a non-profit housing developer, which fixed it up with the promise of providing her an apartment as long as she was able.

The arrangement allowed Zabielski seven more good years of independent living before deteriorating health forced her into a nursing home, said Andrea Raila, the friend who worked hardest to protect her.

That building, which now serves as affordable housing for seniors, also goes in the ledger of Zabielski’s uncommon charity.

Zabielski, who much like her cats could be variously stubborn and ornery or sweet and charming, would no doubt be most pleased by the impact of her gift to PAWS.

The shelter plans to use the money to help pay for an expansion project that will allow the medical center to triple the number of dogs and cats it treats.

More abandoned pets getting treatment means more adoptions and fewer animals euthanized at the city pound, explained Kaitlin Allen, the agency’s development center, who gave me a tour of the 26th Street clinic.

PAWS officials were caught off guard by Zabielski’s bequest, having received only one small donation from her previously, Allen said.

Obviously, it was a good surprise, as PAWS receives no government funding and relies on donations.

PAWS performed 5,982 pet adoptions last year while spaying and neutering 18,290 animals.

PAWS even has a program in which volunteers are enlisted to adopt feral cat colonies, providing them food and shelter as needed after first arranging to have them trapped, spayed and neutered to prevent them from reproducing.

Zabielski would have fit right in — assuming somebody could have convinced her of the need for trapping.

Follow Mark Brown on Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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