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How Sue Altman’s small thrift store turned into a large community benefit.

by JACOB RUNNELS | REPORTER Published: June 2, 2016 2:37 PM
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It’s June 27, 1981 and it is the opening of Sue and Dennis Altman’s first business venture: a thrift store in Aurora.
The 28-year-old Sue was able to get a budget from her boss at the Volunteers of America to find a building for her store, but she was stumped on where the two could set up shop. At least she knew the chief executive officer, which happens to be Dennis’ mother.
“Sue, why don’t we set up a thrift shop in Aurora?” Dennis asked the skeptical Sue.
She didn’t have much faith in the idea; she was only with the VOA for two years (October 1979 to be exact).
But with Dennis’s connections involving his parents being colonels (when they used to give ranks) and his grandparents being ordained ministers (the VOA also gave religious titles), what could go wrong?
They searched everywhere in the area — from Mantua to Solon and Hudson to Streetsboro — but some places were too expensive.
However, after a drive through Aurora along the street she lived on, she came across a building on the southwest corner of Moneta Avenue and North Aurora Road with signs in the windows that said “for lease.”
The former commercial building faces Geauga Lake Amusement Park.
After an agreement with the landlord, Sue and Dennis started up more than just one of the smallest thrift stores in Ohio.
They started a place where needy families could get some cereal or peanut butter to keep their cupboards stocked just a little longer.
They started a place where families who lost their homes to fires could start over with the things they once took for granted, such as dishes or beds.
They started a place where people could even talk about what’s on their mind to an open ear.
“It’s more one-on-one here and there’s more communication,” Sue said. “Maybe they had a death in their family, maybe they’re depressed [or maybe] things aren’t right today and they wanna see a happy face. I’m out here a lot; I’ve talked to a lot of them.”

WHAT’S  IT  ALL  ABOUT
The VOA Food Pantry and Thrift Store in Aurora has helped the community for nearly 35 years by not only selling clothes and other items at cheap prices, but by giving residents the things they need to survive.
“A lot of people can’t afford this stuff,” Altman said. “Anyway you can help them is something we try to do.”
Sue wants to “find you something to eat on, something you can sit on and something you can sleep on.”
The VOA is an organization based around religion where, according to its website, it “provides services that are designed locally to address specific community needs.”
The website also states its services have helped more than 12,000 people in Greater Ohio and more than 2 million people in America.
Altman has a staff of about seven people, some volunteers and others paid by the VOA. These people help load a smorgasbord of household objects — from bed frames to filing cabinets and even board games — onto trucks to ship to needy families or other VOA stores.
They also help disperse food to those in need from their food pantry, which is also connected to the warehouse.
Ashley Cumberledge started out as a volunteer through community service and, once her service hours were up, Sue offered her a full-time paid job.
“It’s not a job everybody can do,” Ashley said. “I feel it’s a rewarding job. We do a lot here to help a lot of people.”
From helping around the thrift store to operating in the warehouse on truck day — which she said is every day — she helps decide what goes in the warehouse, what gets stored into other trucks and what gets sent to other stores.
She also helps give people food from the pantry. A labyrinth of metal and plastic shelves comprise the pantry, stocked with plenty of dry foods like spaghetti noodles and peanut butter.
Years ago, the maze used to be only five shelves near the office room, but thanks to a renovation of the warehouse, Sue now has her own “hole in the wall” to store food.
The shelves also have unusual things like travel-sized soaps and shampoo bottles. Since she needs to allocate her funding toward food, she asks people who go on vacations to donate their extra toiletries.

FOOD  IN  HIGH  DEMAND
People who would like to request food can do so once a month, and Sue is known for giving out food on Thanksgiving and Christmas, though now she gives gift cards on Thanksgiving so she has more food to deliver people on Christmas.
“With the food cupboard the way it is now, I’m very proud of what I have here,” she said. “It’s a beautiful program. We have a lot of volunteers who are here helping and that’s how I got here.”
It’s 1987 and it’s nearing Christmastime.
A couple of years before, a woman from the Church of Aurora helped Sue establish the food cupboard that gave the church a way to help needy people without having to go to the church itself.
Later on, the Church in Aurora wanted to work with the young combination thrift store / food cupboard with a new way to give: the Caring Tree.
The idea was simple: have a way for families to sign up and Sue could deliver them food and Christmas gifts. There were only seven families to deliver to that year, but Sue didn’t know she would help out more than 130 more families in the future.
Eventually, Sue got help from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the amount of food being given out and families being served increased.
Then her neighbors moved away and offered her their space to be used as a warehouse and food pantry, which led to more opportunities for Sue to explore.
In the recent past, Sue has given out 60 to 80 pounds of food at a time. Now, because of a food shortage in March, the food pantry is able to give out 40 to 50 pounds.
She makes do with enough gift cards and city funds to help supply the pantry with more food.
“It gets a little scary because we have to start giving less food,” she said. “We’re still giving food, but we don’t have much because we don’t have the variety now.”
Food drives take place occasionally to teplenish her stock. There also are people who give donations and will go out on shopping sprees to help fill the shelves.

OFFERING  EXTENSIVE  HELP
In the winter of 1998 while Sue was opening her store for the day, she was greeted by a young family of three which has been living in a garage for a while. They asked her for help.
She didn’t have the space for all three people, but she had enough for their 10-year-old daughter, the same age as Sue’s daughter at the time.
“You know what, I’ll let your child stay with me,” she said to them. “But you guys are going to have to [make do] the best way you can.”
After a few months, Sue helped the couple find jobs. They had to ride a bike to Solon, but they raised enough money for a security deposit toward their new place in Twinsburg.
Nowadays, Sue still helps those in serious need, such as people whose houses have burned down and they have nothing else to their names. She used to help people with beds, but then Portage County had a problem with bed bugs. She still offers people bed frames and other necessities.
At the end of the day, Sue is proud of what she offers to the community. Even though she works 60 hours each week with only one day off, she loves what she does to help.
She was first inspired by her dad, who often would help blind people cross the street, and she enjoys how her attitude toward helping the needy has carried on to reflect upon the thrift store and food pantry.

HONORS  FOR  ALTMAN
At the end of 2014, Sue was honored by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce as its citizen of the year.
“Those who know Sue will tell you she is a loving, humble person, leads by example, works harder than anyone and never expects acknowledgement or accolades,” said Aurora Chamber Executive Director Laura Holman back then.
Most of all, Holman said Altman makes people feel valued.
“Sue does all that she can to be sure that every family members of those she serves does not go without a Christmas gift,” added Jim Maulis, owner of Graphics by Design and a Church in Aurora member.
And Maulis said Bruce Harris, a lifelong Aurora resident who has been instrumental in food collection programs in the area over the year, cannot speak highly enough about Altman and what she has done for the community.


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