Senior in Action – Rhea Zakich

Marilee Marrero Stefenhagen
Former County of LA Public Library Administrator is having the time of her life as a retiree; meeting fascinating people who are active seniors, and volunteering for Soroptimist International of Norwalk and other women’s groups.

Senior in Action – Rhea Zakich

As told to Marilee Marrero Stefenhagen

Rhea Zakich, age 84, does not go by the name her parents gave her.  Born in Akron, Ohio, her birth name was Marilyn.  The second oldest of 5 siblings, she became fed-up with baby-sitting her younger brothers and by the time she turned 18, mom announced she was pregnant with baby sister Luanne. Marilyn could hardly wait to get out of the house. She got an apartment and a job at Goodyear Aircraft where she met and married Daniel, a fellow Ohioan. When Daniel got a job offer at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, they headed for the ‘unknown land’ called Long Beach, California.  Friends told them, “Those people out west are strange.”  But at age 23, they packed up and settled down in Garden Grove and raised two sons; Darin and Dean.


Are you wondering why Marilyn changed her name to Rhea? It happened during her early faith journey.  She and Daniel were not raised in religious households.  By age 24, Marilyn had two baby boys.  A neighbor invited her to attend church.  She asked Alice, “What do you like about church?”Alice replied, “They have free childcare in the nursery, so adults can worship in the sanctuary with no distractions.”   That sounded really good to Marilyn, and she liked the word sanctuary.  It sounded restful and peaceful.  After a slow start, she attended church regularly. One day, during a guided meditation, Marilyn experienced a vision.  She shared, “I visualized Jesus as if in a movie.  Jesus called me Rhea, as if we were old friends.  Rhea is a Greek word meaning ‘flowing stream.’  I thought about the prior months, when most of my meditations focused on letting things go.  I thought of people in the Bible whose names were changed when their purpose changed, and realized Jesus had called me for a greater purpose.  Since that day, I have used the name Rhea.”


In her mid-30s, Rhea lost her voice and was told by doctors she might never speak again. Needing a way to communicate in a meaningful way with her family, she created a deck of conversation cards called the UNGAME.  The conversation prompts were so effective, she decided to share UNGAME with a wider audience to encourage people to talk about their feelings and ideas, and listen.  After numerous tries, she found someone to publish it.  The UNGAME has sold nearly 5 million copies without any advertising and has been translated into more than 14 languages!


Rhea said, “I never thought of myself as a writer.  My first book, Everybody Wins was published by Tyndale House when UNGAME started to take off.  It was my story about how God walked with me through times of crisis. Everybody Wins includes my experiences after the Watts Riots, when I decided to put my faith into practice by living in burned-out areas of LA to provide desperately needed help.”


In June 2019, Rhea met a memoir writer from Indiana who insisted she write another memoir.  They emailed stories and feedback back and forth until Rhea completed her second memoir, titled He Called Me Rhea.  This spiritual autobiography explains how God led her throughout life’s journey. Rhea said, “Just like childhood “follow the dots” puzzles, I couldn’t see the entire picture until I looked back at my nearly completed path.“


Seven years ago, Rhea and her husband moved to Town & Country Manor, a Christian senior community in Santa Ana, CA. Rhea described the change, “Living here feels like being on a cruise ship with choices of activities and meals prepared for us. My husband’s health deteriorated and he died in 2019. Sons Darin and Dean, now age 60 and 59, visit me weekly, but visits are now restricted due to the Corona virus pandemic.”

When asked how she stays active, Rhea replied, “I’m editor of the Town & Country Manor newsletter. I take photos of people participating in activities and submit stories for the newsletter printed by staff.  Seven years ago, I was one of a handful of residents who owned computers. Now more than 80 of the 200 senior residents have computer access and tech support. My computer also allows me to easily communicate with my siblings and two grandchildren via email or Facebook. My bicycle is gathering dust because of hazardous conditions from nearby construction. I walk instead, either indoors, or to the pharmacy, a nearby park, or the mall.“

Here is Rhea’s advice to NBY readers:1) Do not isolate yourself!  How can you avoid isolation during this pandemic?  Stay in touch with family and friends.  Pick up the phone, or use your computer. Find people with whom you share interests or hobbies.  I’m part of a ukulele band and we perform for residents in the skilled nursing area. What a hoot!  I also joined jewelry-making and craft groups.  2) Find a purpose.  I’ve led over 500 retreats in my lifetime.  Often retreat attendees would say, “I don’t know what my purpose is!”  I would reply, “Pick something you like to do, and do it for God.  That will give you purpose.”

For more information about the UNGAME, visit her website  Rhea Zakich’s new book He Called Me Rhea is available for sale on Amazon.

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