Betty DeForest Memorial Services

Originally appeared in EastBay Times by Darin Moriki

March 24, 2017

HAYWARD — If there was a person who was down on their luck, homeless, lost or disenfranchised, those who knew Betty DeForest say she often would be right there beside them, offering a hand to lift them up, a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear.

“She wanted to be a voice for people when she felt that they were not being heard, not being represented, or unable to represent themselves or speak up for themselves; she wanted to help everybody one person at a time,” DeForest’s daughter, Julie Morsilli, said Tuesday.

“She really thought that everybody should be doing that. If we all just did a little bit of that, then wouldn’t Hayward and the world be a better place,” she said.

Friends, family and colleagues say it is a legacy they want people to carry out in her memory.

DeForest, a longtime South Hayward Parish leader, homeless advocate, community organizer and devoted mother, died suddenly March 11 after a brief illness. She was 85.

“The Hayward community was better off because Betty DeForest lived in it and always put helping others ahead of anything else in her life,” Congressman Eric Swalwell wrote in a Tuesday email.

“We will miss Betty, but we are hopeful for the future leaders she has seeded in the examples she has set,” he said.

DeForest, a Bend, Ore. native, moved to the Bay Area as a child and lived in Oakland before settling in South Hayward in 1952 with her husband. There, she raised her five sons and two daughters in a modest home with only one bathroom. But that didn’t stop DeForest from helping those around her.

“I could remember coming home and literally not be sure sometimes about who was going to be sitting at our kitchen table,” Morsilli said.

“There was not a lot of money at all. Yet, if she found somebody at a church who needed a hot meal, or if one of my teenage brothers’ friends wasn’t going to get a hot meal because their parents weren’t going to be home that evening, they were seated at our kitchen table,” she said.

It’s a spirit that grew over the years.

“Betty DeForest was a champion for the poor, the hungry and the homeless,” Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle wrote in an email.

“Betty was highly respected by our elected officials and decision-makers as a credible voice for the social needs of the humanity she served, and she was loved by the community,” he said.

Soon after moving to Hayward, DeForest joined Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church, one of three congregations that in 1965 formed what is now the South Hayward Parish interfaith social justice group. She later became active in the parish.

In the decades that followed, DeForest became its executive director and led efforts to offer more services. The parish now includes a food pantry, free hot showers for homeless people, an emergency shelter during inclement weather and free life skills classes, among other things.

“Betty was straightforward; she saw what needed to be done and she did it, or she activated people around her to get it done. And she had this amazing ability to see potential in people and help them realize that potential,” said Hayward City Councilwoman Sara Lamnin, who worked at South Hayward Parish before being elected.

“The community doesn’t call her ‘Mama’ by accident — half of the community calls her Mama and the other half calls her mentor — because she took people under her wing. The number of people who she helped was in the thousands, whether it was food, warmth comfort, a hug, a listening ear or goading them into action,” she said.

DeForest, through her work at South Hayward Parish, was a driving force behind creating the Hayward Day Labor Center, which connects mostly immigrant workers to jobs.

“Everyone thought they were her best friend, and it could be a politician, some guy off the street or drug addict, because, at that time when she’s talking to them, they were,” said South Hayward Parish Interim Director Ralph Morales.

DeForest actively combated discrimination in Hayward.

She served as president of the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) for some time. With the aid of city leaders, Project Eden and South Hayward Parish, she helped launch the Hayward Gay Prom in 1994, when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth were not welcome at other proms.

“I developed a deep respect, love and admiration for Betty and for her unflagging commitment to the least, the last and the lost; for saying what needed to be said, especially when what she said was unpopular; and for maintaining her sense of humor even in the most discouraging times,” the Rev. Arlene Nehring, of Eden United Church of Christ, wrote in an email.

DeForest served on the Hayward Human Relations Commission, now the Human Services Commission, in the 1970s and helped craft the city’s anti-discrimination plan in 1992. South Hayward Parish, led by DeForest, spearheaded a grassroots initiative, No Room for Racism, later adopted by the city.

“I remember her just for the good things she did and the way she did it in a gentle way,” Mayor Barbara Halliday said.

“She was never demanding, harsh or critical, but she got what she needed to help other people,” she said.

DeForest, a longtime Eden Youth and Family Center executive director, also served two terms on the Hayward school board in the 1990s and early 2000s.

DeForest often deflected any public recognition for her actions. After all, there was still work to be done and people who needed help.

“I think she would want from all of us is to do one thing by helping one person, volunteer at one event or contribute to one thing,” Morsilli said.

“I think we forget how little it can start off — how you can do one little thing and it can just grow. Then there’s certain people like my mom who just takes it to another level, where it skyrockets and she believes nothing is impossible,” she said.

A memorial service for DeForest will be held at 1 p.m. March 25 at First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, 2490 Grove Way, Castro Valley. A reception will be held afterward at South Hayward Parish, 27287 Patrick Ave.

She is survived by her seven children: Morsilli, Richard DeForest, Tim DeForest, Paul DeForest, Jeanne DeForest, Rudy DeForest and Shawn DeForest.

Betty Deforest Memorial Information: 

Saturday March 25th 1:00 pm

1st Presbyterian Church:

2490 Grove Way, Castro Valley CA 94546

Reception Information: 

New Bridges Outreach Center:

27287 Patrick Ave, Hayward, CA 94544

Original Article