Everyday Heroes: Darlene's Timeless Energy

Darlene Brunson talks about her life and her work at the Neighborhood House Senior Center in Multnomah Village.

When it comes to energy, Darlene Brunson has the market cornered.

"I used to have a motto on my refrigerator. 'WORK IS PLAY I ENJOY,'" remembers the 93-year-old Portland dynamo. "I heard that once and put it on my refrigerator."

Brunson knows work. After graduating eighth grade in the 1930s, she got a full-time job helping a local mother with housekeeping and childcare. Then, she worked more than four decades before retiring.

"Oh yes, I made hot tamales for 42 years," she says.

But it's how that work ethic has manifested itself in her later years that makes Darlene our Everyday Hero. Her boundless energy and her loving heart make a huge difference in the lives of a bunch of seniors who spend time at the Neighborhood House Senior Center inside the Multnomah Arts Center in Multnomah Village.

"It's just a special treatment she gives people," says Marlyce Gholston, a friend and fellow Senior Center visitor, who wrote the letter to KATU nominating Brunson as an Everyday Hero. "People are glad to see her here, and she acknowledges them when they get in, and if she's not here, they go, 'Where's Darlene?'"

And warmly greeting people is just a fraction of what Darlene does every day. In fact, it's exhausting just to read her daily schedule.

Darlene gets up every morning at 5:30, so she can be at the Senior Center by 7:30 to make coffee.

She usually has the coffee, hot water and pastries ready, and has tidied-up the lobby a bit, by the time the center's staff arrives.

She greets everyone by name as they arrive, delivers pastries to the community police office that shares the building, and constantly tidies up with her little Bissel carpet sweeper.

And all that happens before lunch.

"She's constantly doing something," says Gholston, "like her Bissel. We always say, 'Well, it's Bissel time.'"

"Yep, that's part of my job," says Brunson. "Part of my job's to run the carpet sweeper."

But she also stacks donated bread, washes the dishes, and takes any extra donated food to the nearby food bank.

She also notices when someone hasn't been in to the Senior Center for a while, and will check up on them. And when you ask her about her jam-packed schedule, she makes it seem like there's nothing to it.

"It's good to keep busy and help people," she says, "and that's why I do it."

But as is fitting for a human whirling dervish like her, Darlene's been doing it since the first day she set foot in the Senior Center.

"Well, it happened this way. My husband and I, we came to visit. Just to sit down. And I started pushing the carpet sweeper and fiddling around, and one day one of the case workers said, 'Darlene, would you have time to cut up some pastry for the kitchen?'" she recalls. "And from then on, it's just ... I'm here."

"Here" is a familiar place for Mrs. Brunson. The Multnomah Arts Center used to be a school. In fact, Darlene roamed the halls there as a student back in the 30s, after the city closed her previous school, a two-room schoolhouse in Hillsdale. She lived a mile up the road, and never left the neighborhood. She still lives close by.

And when she goes home, Darlene's day still isn't over. She takes home all the Flav-R-Pac bags used by the Meals on Wheels office next door, and dutifully cuts out all the UPC symbols. She bundles them 50 at a time, and mails them to the Willamette Valley food company, who pays her 5 cents for each UPC. One year, Darlene earned $4,000 back. That's 80,000 individual UPCs. She donated all the money back to Meals on Wheels.

"And she just kind of does it without any fanfare," says Gholston. "Doesn't ask for acknowledgement or accolades or what-have-you. It's nice to have somebody care for them, and think about them, and just do things quietly, just for them without asking for any applause."

"It's good to keep busy and help people," Darlene declares, "And that's why I do it."

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