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'Angel' supplies Ambridge students with basic needs

| Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, 4:34 p.m.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Cynthia Zurchin, superintendent of Ambridge Area School District, and Chad O'Brien on Friday Aug. 14, 2015, show off some supplies gathered at Highland Elementary School in Ambridge. O'Brien donated money for school supplies for the year.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
These are just some of the supplies gathered at Highland Elementary School in Ambridge Friday Aug. 14, 2015. O'Brien donated money for school supplies for the year.

Sibling rivalry isn't always a negative thing.

When Chad O'Brien of Sewickley heard his sister had filled two backpacks with school supplies for a needy family in Arizona, his first thought was: “Let's take that up a notch.”

He tossed around a few ideas and finally settled on donating school supplies to the 511 students, prekindergarten through the sixth grade, in Highland Elementary School in Ambridge.

He had driven through the borough often in the five years he and his wife have made their home here. It reminded him of little mill towns in North Carolina, he said.

“It's the same old story of mills closing and lost jobs,” he said.

There was a need in the Ambridge Area schools he didn't find closer to home. Later, he would learn that 76 percent of the Highland children were living at or below the poverty level.

Friends and family contributed to his plea for donations of pencils, crayons, glue sticks and highlighters.

He was able to raise $1,900. Last week, he visited the school, brought 100 boxes of tissues and 160 large bottles of hand sanitizer, and wrote a check for $1,600.

“Sometimes, people are on the same wavelength, and wonderful things happen in the universe,” said Cynthia Zurchin, superintendent of Ambridge Area School District.

She and O'Brien paged through a wholesale catalog and selected hundreds of pencils, crayons, highlighters, glue sticks and top-of-the-pencil erasers.

“We had some needs, and he was here to answer the needs,” she said. “He's a little angel under our wings.”

O'Brien, 59, who retired from a career in sales and marketing, credits his giving-back-to-community philosophy to his parents, who raised seven children in Bronx, New York City. Because of his father's childhood in poverty, there was room made at the family home for two foster children every summer. Today, each of O'Brien's siblings contributes to one cause or another, he said.

His parents also taught them all the value of an education.

“It is truly a way out for underprivileged children, and basic school supplies are critical,” he said.

Zurchin said she finds leading the school district “unbelievably very rewarding” and she hopes O'Brien's generosity will inspire others to support the school system.

O'Brien isn't finished yet. He hopes to collect $600 more to present the children with some kind of mid-year incentives.

“I started this two weeks ago,” he said. “Next year, I'm gonna kill it.”

His goal then is $10,000.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or

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