by Meg Hadzinsky
Walk into St. Augustine’s Hunger Center (2486 W 14th Street, 216.781.5530) on any given day, and you will be met by smiling volunteers, with the fresh aroma of home cooked food, and a hug from the women behind it all – Sister Corita Ambro. For the past 47 years, Sister Corita has served the Tremont community by providing meals and more importantly unconditional support for the homeless. The happiness that outpours from the volunteers and patrons at the hunger center is a testament to the women who helped create the community at St. Augustine.
Sister Corita started her career as a second-grade teacher and loved the fulfilling work but was soon called in a different direction. Sister was brought to St. Augustine initially to help the deaf community of the parish. During our interview, Sister signed a majority of her story just as a natural form of communication. After being involved in the parish, she felt the need to help another struggling community – the homeless. When Sister first got the idea for the hunger center she was up against a resistance: “30 years ago they didn’t want the hunger center here. Okay, they were not in my backyard, so when I sat down and thought about how do I help people understand people who come here, I needed to find a way to change the neighborhood’s attitude about the homeless community.” In an attempt to change the perception, Sister brought along homeless to help with any community event, from The Taste of Tremont to cleaning up Lincoln Park. Sister successfully shifted the attitude of the neighborhood, so much so that for the past two years she has been supported with food and finances for her operation.
Today, the hunger center, located in the basement of St. Augustine’s church across from Lincoln Park, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, and serves over 20,000 people during the holiday seasons. “Homeless people tell me it’s the best food in the city, and I believe it’s true because my team does such an incredible job,” said Sister Corita. The manpower behind the hunger center is made up wholly of volunteers, who will arrive early to serve breakfast and not leave until dinner is finished. Sam Peyton, a volunteer, let us know that the love and support from Sister Corita and the hunger center community completely changed his life. Peyton continues to volunteer because he knows personally how important the hunger center is to a neighborhood like Tremont. I visited the hunger center during a Lenten fish fry, and the joy was overflowing from everyone within those walls. Visitors and volunteers all shared a smile, a laugh and a special hug from Sister Corita. Sister told us how she discovered the true power of a hug and why she continues to hug everyone who visits the hunger center today.
Years ago, Sister greeted an old friend with a warm embrace when he came to see her at the center. Later that day, another patron came up to Sister and said he was angry with her because he had been coming to the hunger center for three years and had never been given a hug. Sister said at the time, “I couldn’t do it, he had bugs in his hair, layers of dirty coats and honestly he smelled terrible.” But this man remained persistent. Every day, he would ask sister if today was the day she would give him a hug, and he continued to be rejected. Then one hot August day, Sister found herself frustrated and overwhelmed by the day’s events and was ready to throw in the towel when this man approached her. He asked again if Sister was finally going to give him a hug. Sister said, “So, well why not, and I could never explain now how it opened up my heart, but I didn’t know until they taught me – they changed my entire life.” From that moment on, Sister Corita has greeted everyone who comes to her hunger center with an embrace because she was taught the importance of touch and how much it can mean to someone who feels so alone. One man received one of Sister’s hugs and completely broke down and then explained to her that he had just got out of prison, and she was the first person to hug him in 20 years. After hearing her story, I was thankful to receive one of Sister’s hugs myself.
Sister Corita and her volunteers encourage anyone to join their community and help them with their efforts to serve the homeless community. Both Sister and the volunteers explained that once people get involved, they will receive so much from all the visitors of the hunger center and the different walks of life they’ll be able to witness. Sister said, “They can just knock on the door and come on in and help, and we will get them working.” If you would like to volunteer or donate to the hunger center, you may visit www.staugustine-west14.org, call 216.781.5530, or stop in at 2486 W 14th St, Cleveland, OH 44113.