HAYWARD -- When Betty DeForest moved to South Hayward in 1952 as a young mother, she could hear her neighbor beating his wife, but her mother told her to try to just ignore it.
As a white person, DeForest did not yet realize it was a problem that there were no people of color in her neighborhood or in her children's schools.
Though focused mainly on raising her seven children, she gradually became aware of injustices around her. As her children got older, she became more active in social and political causes.
"I first got involved wanting to do something to help my community," DeForest said.
In the decades since, DeForest, 81, has fought on behalf of the poor, gays, undocumented workers, the homeless -- wherever she has seen a need. For the past 10 years, since she retired from the Eden Youth and Family Center, she has been executive director of South Hayward Parish, which runs a food pantry, a homeless program, classes and counseling.
"Betty was a good mother, always taking people in, and she carried that good mother quality into the community," said Doris Rodriquez, 85, another longtime South Hayward activist who met DeForest decades ago at a political gathering. "She would have been a great social worker."
DeForest's years as an activist began a short time after she and her husband bought their home, where DeForest still lives, in South Hayward.
DeForest joined Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church, one of three congregations that in 1965 formed South Hayward Parish, an interfaith group. She began taking part in the parish's activities a few years after it began.
A quiet woman with a twinkle in her eye who laughs easily, DeForest is serious about fighting discrimination. In the 1970s, a time when the city had only one African-American employee who was not paving streets and no female police officers or firefighters, she joined the Hayward Human Relations Commission, which later became the Human Services Commission.
"The city would routinely send reports to the commission on why it wasn't able to hire minorities. And it was not uncommon for an African-American to not be able to find housing," she said. "Sometimes we get lost in nostalgia and forget how things were."
David Korth, who became city liaison to the commission 23 years ago, said DeForest has been a champion of people of lower economic status who didn't have power or clout.
"She keeps it real, but in a constructive way," said Korth, now Hayward neighborhood services manager. "She's been a real voice for South Hayward."
The mother of a gay son, DeForest was president of the local chapter of PFLAG, a parent and family group supporting gay rights. Along with Project Eden and South Hayward Parish, she helped launch the Hayward Gay Prom 19 years ago, a time when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth were not welcome at other proms. The annual event continues today.
She served two terms on the Hayward school board in the 1990s and early 2000s. For 13 years, she was executive director of the Eden Youth and Family Center before retiring.
"I was a child: I was 71 when I retired," DeForest laughed. "Well, that worked for about six months."
Restless, when asked to run an after-school program at housing project Tennyson Garden, she agreed, staying for six years.
Through South Hayward Parish, she was one of the main forces in starting the Day Labor Center.
As more and more day laborers began gathering along Tennyson Road in the 2000s, rather than see the workers as a problem, DeForest wanted to know how she could improve their lot. For more than a year, South Hayward Parish members went out on the street to ask the workers what they needed.
"They wanted to learn English, find employment, get health care and make employers stop ripping them off," DeForest said. She and others lobbied the City Council to get funding for the center, which opened in 2007. It has since spun off from South Hayward Parish.
DeForest regularly drops by the center, where she is known among the workers as "the lady with the food," said Executive Director Gabriel Hernandez. "She'll give you food to make sure you're not hungry. She's also known as the lady who started the Day Labor Center."
When she sees a need, she organizes to address the problem, Hernandez said. "She's always improving something," he said.
On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, she is at the parish's food pantry, handing out words of encouragement and a big smile along with groceries. "The people who come here, they are such a variety and so much fun. They are delightful," she said. "I love coming to work."
If DeForest is not at her station, people in line worry and ask about her, said volunteer Sabrina Kaufman. "No, we tell them, Betty is fine. She's just in a meeting," Kaufman said.
Some things have improved since those early days in South Hayward, DeForest said. "We now know about battered women," she said. Though discrimination still exists, she said, the area is economically, racially and culturally diverse.
But many struggle, and DeForest, though planning to retire as executive director in July, said she'll keep working with South Hayward Parish on their behalf.
"We are hurting for money, and the need has grown," DeForest said. "Most who come to us for food are the working poor. They're working at jobs, sometimes two. They can't feed the kids and pay the rent.
"I hear the economy is better," she said. "At the bottom, it's not."
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473> Follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.
CLAIM TO FAME: A voice and advocate for South Hayward
QUOTE: "I hear the economy is better. At the bottom, it's not."
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