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As Ambridge’s Population Dwindled, This Woman Made Sure Struggling Neighbors Had Food & Clothing

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Sue Otto, director of the Center for Hope in Ambridge, stands amid the Christmas toys donated for local, low-income youth.

About 16 miles downstream from the headwaters of the Ohio River lies the borough of Ambridge. It was founded in 1905, when the religious group the "Harmony Society" sold about 2 square miles of land to the American Bridge Company -- that’s where the name Ambridge comes from.

The borough’s population boomed in the early 20th Century along with the rise of the steel industry, but declined steadily as mills began to close. More than 20,000 people lived in Ambridge in 1930, but now, the Census Bureau estimates the population to be fewer than 7,000.

90 Neighborhoods, 90 Good Stories is a weekly series celebrating people who make the place they live a better place to live.

“It used to be a thriving community, with various groups just doing well with the mills, and when the mills shut down, a lot of the young people had to move away," said Ambridge resident Sue Otto. "It left some elderly people here without their families, and people are struggling.”

Otto runs the Center for Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that provides free help for the one in five Ambridge residents living in poverty. Otto said providing food and clothing is at the heart of the group’s mission, but the Center also runs an extensive youth program.

“Those programs include art, life skills classes, business classes where, if you’re in the youth group, I don’t care if you’re 5 years old -- let’s start a company. And then we finance all the materials that they need for the company, and they learn to work with the public to sell their items, which, they keep the money.”

The Center for Hope is thriving now, with more than 200 volunteers using almost every square foot of the former school building it now occupies. But Otto, a former radio station commercial writer, said she started her work when the Center was only a small food pantry run out of a church building. She said one day, she was approached at work by a pastor from a church in nearby Sewickley.

“He introduced himself. He came in and took a tour with much emotion, went back to his congregation and said, ‘We need to help.’ The result of that is, people went together and bought the building for us that we’re in right now, which was amazing," Otto said. "I still stand in amazement of that, stand in awe of all that.”

Ambridge resident Laura Beaver said Otto’s help and guidance has "done wonders" for her kids.

“They have learned to have self-esteem, which there was none, a lot of respect for others, which was very low, and she has helped them with that," Beaver said. "Three of the boys [have] already moved out, and they have families of their own, and they’re doing very well.”

Otto said her strong faith has played a central role in her work at the Center for Hope since the very beginning.

“I know we’d have nothing without our God’s hand on this mission," Otto said. "We pray every morning before we open, that we do things right, that God sends the people to trust us to serve them. We pray for that, and I always hope.”