HAYWARD (KPIX 5) – Betty DeForest sat calmly amid the excited children swirling around her outside the South Hayward Parish pantry during our recent visit. There she is known as “Mama” to about 400 families a week who receive free food donations. DeForest co-founded the pantry 30 years ago. It serves a third of Hayward’s hungry.

“I think we’re supposed to take care of each other. I really do,” DeForest said simply.

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Minutes away, DeForest is a familiar friend at the Hayward Community Action Network, a homeless drop-in center she also helped open.

Bob Goodwill is among 50 people a week who come to the center to learn computer skills, cook, shower and wash their clothes.

“She cares about them,” Goodwill said seriously. “She cares about me.”

Besides the pantry and homeless center, DeForest has spearheaded several other programs for the low income. They’re overseen by the South Hayward Parish, a nonprofit she helped create nearly 50 years ago to make a difference.

“You can gonna be able to fix people, one at a time. Yes, you are,” DeForest said.

Many volunteers and clients say they marvel at Betty’s tireless commitment to community service. So how does she do it at age 81?

“It really helps that I really love what I do,” DeForest said with a smile.

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DeForest knows how to lead: she ran a consignment business, served on the school board and raised several children. And as a child of the Depression, she learned to share.

“My mother, when we were small, had this game that we used to camp out underneath the kitchen table with our blankets and pillows,” she remembered. “It was an adventure and somebody else got to sleep in our bed.”

More recently, when she saw Hayward needed a day labor center, she helped launch one in 2007 for hundreds of workers. Because of her, Executive Director Gabriel Hernandez said, the center can offer job training and fight for fair wages.

“She actually gets things done,” Hernandez reported. “She finds the money, she gets people to work together. It’s an amazing thing to watch her. I always say I want to grow up to be just like her someday.”

Back at the Community Action Network, recovering alcoholic Leon South says DeForest has inspired him to give back. That’s why he and others make and sell jewelry to support the homeless.

“She just gives and gives and gives and gives,” South said. “So I came up here and I started giving.”

So for five decades of giving to the homeless and disadvantaged, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Betty DeForest.

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