MESA, Ariz. Since Debbie Hutchings Forrest of the Mesa Arizona Citrus Heights Stake was named National Parent of the Year last summer, she has taken every opportunity to encourage other parents to build strong families and move forward despite challenges.
She speaks from experience.
After 23 years of marriage, Sister Forrest found herself raising seven children alone after her husband, William, was killed in a car accident near their home in 2000.
Drawing strength from her faith in the Savior and her testimony of eternal families, Sister Forrest has helped her children, as well as herself, overcome their great loss and to continue to build a strong family. She is the first single parent to receive the national award from the National Parents' Day Council. She said that when she accepted it in Washington, D.C., in July, she did so on behalf of all single parents who are making a difference in the lives of children.
"Over the past four years since my husband's death, I have become keenly aware of the many single parents who heroically face enormous challenges," she said. "As I have lived with these challenges, my admiration for them has increased, my compassion has grown, and their examples inspire me."
Now her example is inspiring others. She has appeared on television and radio shows and speaks regularly to clubs and organizations. Her message is one of building character in children.
"I believe character is the inward motivation to do what is right, whatever the cost," she said. "It's so important to develop your own character because children learn more from your example than from anything else."
In 2003, Sister Forrest was named Arizona Single Parent of the Year. She was also one of five women honored with an "Embrace Life Award," given by State Farm Life Insurance in New York City last September. The award recognizes individuals "who have moved beyond grief to do extraordinary things for their families and communities."
Sister Forrest said that her family has built upon a tradition of service. "Bill was so service-oriented," she said of her husband, who was bishop of their ward when he died. In giving to others, her family members have experienced healing in themselves. "Our family has found that the more you give and love, the better you feel," she said.
Each of her children has found ways to contribute to their community. Her oldest, Ben, 27, served a mission to Guatemala, graduated from BYU, and started a program called "Books and Basketball" to help children with homework and to teach English to adults and children in California. Katie, 25, served a mission to Argentina, graduated from BYU, and works as a volunteer with the Church's Perpetual Education Fund. Matt, 21, recently returned from serving a mission to Chile and is attending BYU. Kara, 20 attends BYU, has started several of her own businesses and organized several "fun runs" to raise money for charity. Daniel, 15, achieved the rank of Eagle Scout while serving as student body president at his school and organized a "Freedom Run" that raised over $11,000 for phone cards for troops overseas. Aaron, 12, is serving as 7th grade president and is involved in Scouting. Jonathan, 10, is a school news reporter and is involved in Scouting and sports.
As a family, the Forrests have made trips to Honduras and Mexico to volunteer in building houses and helping at orphanages.
Since her husband's passing, Sister Forrest has served in the Scouting program, and has been very involved in community service, raising over $100,000 for Mesa schools, serving as Block Watch captain for 400 homes and Parent Teacher Organization president.
Sherrie Nattrass, of the Arizona Apache Junction Stake, nominated Sister Forrest for the parenting award. She is "undaunted by adversity," Sister Nattrass said of her friend. "She has proven that strong families can live on, even when only one is left to finish the responsibility of raising seven children to be powerful leaders and contributing citizens."