September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

It was Aug. 29, and things were not going well for Amber Ditmer. At 23, she was a single mom living in a Dayton public housing project with her son Anthony, 6, and her father, Bruce, 49. Vandals had just cut off her electricity. When someone knocked on the door that afternoon, she figured it was another bill collector. “Tell ’em to go away,” she ordered Anthony.

“Mommy,” he pleaded a moment later, “you better come.” On the doorstep was an improbable gathering: a half dozen people wearing blue blazers and big grins. One waved a giant cardboard check. “Congratulations,” he declared. “Your father has won $2 million from Publisher’s Clearing House!” News cameras rolled. “If we’d have been on TV before this,” says Bruce, “it would have been because we witnessed a crime.”

Divorced from Amber’s mother in 1980, Bruce reared his only child alone. Amber, a phone rep for the Victoria’s Secret catalog, has struggled to support the family since April, when worsening diabetes cost Bruce his job at an electronics plant. Things grew so desperate that when her car recently burst into flames on a highway, she ran back to save her coat: “It’s the only one I had.”

Thanks to Bruce’s decade-long obsession with entering the sweepstakes, the Ditmers will be warm this winter. Their new, $1,300-a-month apartment on a safer side of town boasts a fireplace. And Anthony, who turns 7 on Oct. 25, will learn what it means to be pampered a bit on his birthday. “No more scrounging money for cake,” says Amber. “He’ll have a good party.” And, promises his grandfather, the best college education a millionaire’s money can buy.

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