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Ambleside Meals on Wheels director cooks up friendship, lunch for seniors at 'Everybody's Place'

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ANNE ENDICOTT - Brianna Bigham is the director of the Ambleside Meals on Wheels program at the Gresham Senior Center. She oversees the distribution of 270 meals to homebound seniors each day, as well as preparpation of 70 lunches for those who come into the center.On any given day of the week, Brianna Bigham is probably the youngest person in the dining room at the Gresham Senior Center on Northeast Eighth Street.

In her baseball cap and apron, Bigham could be mistaken for someone's granddaughter or even a volunteer looking to refill a water glass.

But in reality, 35-year-old Bigham is director of the Ambleside Meals on Wheels Center. She oversees the distribution of 240 meals to homebound seniors each day, along with the preparation and serving of 70 meals for those who come into the center. It's an act that could challenge the best of event planners.

"It's like putting on a party every day," she said.

Bigham is a native Oregonian, born in Klamath Falls, the middle of three children to a pair of educators. The family moved to Gresham when Bigham was 5, when her father became a behavioral specialist with Portland Public Schools and her mother an early childhood instructor at Mt. Hood Community College's Head Start Program.

During high school, Bigham was captain of the cheerleading squad at Gresham High and spent her summers as a lifeguard and swim instructor with Portland Parks and Recreation. After graduating from GHS in 2000, Bigham enrolled at MHCC, intent on studying business.

"I told my parents I was never going to be a teacher," she said, laughing. "Too much politics and not enough pay. So I went into social services instead."

When the birth of her son in 2003 cut her college education short, Bigham took the opportunity to become a full time stay-at-home mom. She welcomed another son four years later.

In 2009, Bigham began exploring employment opportunities to help with the family's budget. She "stumbled" across a Craigslist job posting for the Ambleside Center of Meals on Wheels with the heading, "Do you like to feed people?"

"Cooking is something I love," Bigham said, "so I thought I can do this. But I never worked in the kitchen — they hired me as the program coordinator for Meals on Wheels."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ANNE ENDICOTT - Bigham chats with volunteer Sam Graham, who checks in those who are arriving for lunch at the Ambleside Meals on Wheels Center.Bigham drove delivery routes for the program when needed, but was primarily responsible for overseeing meal preparation.

"There were, and still are, times when I've had to jump in and cook in an industrial kitchen, which is so different than cooking at home," she said. "People are glad when the cook comes back."

In 2014, Bigham was promoted to director for both the Gresham and Rockwood Meals on Wheels centers. Although the majority of her job these days is what she calls "administrative," Bigham creates ways to make sure those who come for lunch at the center feel at home.

"My goal is to make this a second home for clients," she explained. "Between the hours of (9 a.m. and 1 p.m.), I offer coffee, facilitate conversations; clients tell me about their weekend, their kids. They're coming in here because they need someone and all they want is to talk."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ANNE ENDICOTT - In the center's storage room, Bigham consults with dietetic intern Jennifer Schaffer to make sure the bulk foods on hand meet nutritional standards.Even though the Ambleside Meals on Wheels Center and Gresham Senior Center share space in the building owned by Multnomah County, the two organizations are separately managed, yet work in tandem to provide activities and social interaction for seniors.

"Most people don't know that we're separate from the senior center," Bigham said. "But we work well together so if people think that, that means we're doing it right."

Bigham enjoys her daily visits with the "regulars" who come in for lunch. She chats her way around tables in the dining room, her youthfulness and ever-present smile an obvious bright spot for many.

But her ultimate joy comes from the notes and cards she receives from the seniors who are unable to come in to the center.

"Somebody donated a bunch of handmade cards once," Bigham recalled. "They were really beautiful. I sent one to a client on his birthday with his lunch and he sent me back a note that said, 'Nobody has sent me a birthday card since my wife died five years ago.' That's why I do this. I have a passion for all my adopted grandparents here, and I care."

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