By Shannon Steele
Around 2000, a semi-retired Betty-Coe R. de Broekert was making a road trip to visit family in California when she was stopped by an unmarked police car for following too close. When asked if she knew the ‘three second rule,’ she could not answer even though she had previously taken safe driving classes as required by her employer. The officer gave her a card describing how to calculate the following distance rule.
She stopped at a rest stop to catch her breath and reflect; this was a wake-up call, she said. And maybe why when shortly after that, she saw a news story for an AARP Driver Safety class, she immediately signed up. The course instructor said they were looking for more instructors and he would provide applications for those who were interested. Being a lifelong learner and consummate educator, she was especially intrigued. She sought to apply to become a volunteer instructor. The only problem was the local coordinator said that women did not make good instructors; they did not have enough knowledge about vehicles. He told her no – and yet she persisted and did indeed become a driver safety instructor almost two years later. Over the years she took on more leadership roles with this all-volunteer program, eventually becoming the Statewide Volunteer Coordinator for Driver Safety for eight years in Oregon and now serving as a national volunteer advisor. And now she notes, she is mindful about keeping a safe space cushion and following distance between her vehicle and others on the road!
It’s not a good idea to say no to Betty-Coe R. de Broekert. The dynamic 90-year-old shatters stereotypes with her razor-sharp intelligence, wit and energy. In addition to logging sometimes 40 hours a week as a volunteer, she’s also made time recently for hot air ballooning, ziplining and white-water rafting.
Betty-Coe’s leadership and compassion have helped others and changed lives for decades.
It all comes back to her roots. Since she was little, her grandmother and mother instilled in her the importance of giving back to the community. During World War II, Betty-Coe’s grandmother took her once a week on the bus from N. Portland to downtown to volunteer for the Red Cross making care packages for the troops. Later her mom and grandmother took her to a monthly USO ‘Canteen’ program in Salem to help entertain members of the military stationed nearby. Some of the men would come over and chat with her because they missed their little sister. She even served as a school crossing guard for which she received an American Legion recognition.
After Betty-Coe graduated from the University of Oregon, as a young mother she was selected to be on the board of directors for the YWCA in Eugene representing the YW Wives program. She had been involved in the YW-Teen service program in high school and this was a natural progression. This was one of Betty-Coe’s first leadership roles outside of college, but certainly not the last. She went on to become a part of the YWCA of the USA national board, serving for 10 years including officer roles.
It’s not surprising Betty-Coe was chosen to be a leader with the YW. “When I think of Betty-Coe, I think of a strategic planner, a first-class trainer and a decisive leader,” said Joyce DeMonnin, Communications Director at AARP Oregon.
But there were other sides to her too. While volunteering for the YW, she was at a national convention in Cleveland when a man, Rev. Bruce Klunder who had attended high school and college in Oregon, was crushed under a bulldozer while protesting the construction of a segregated school in East Cleveland. The YW convention members voted to join the 150 people the next day who marched in silent memorial in front of the Board of Education Building downtown Cleveland -- not her first protest march nor her last. In high school she had participated in a city-wide walkout and march in support of increasing teacher’s salaries. And while in New York City attending NYU in the mid-1960s, you might find her in the sea of faces at the 1964 NYC school boycott. Non-violent protests are just one of the advocacy tools Betty-Coe would come to use including testifying at the legislature and working with the League of Women Voters.
Betty-Coe also continued her volunteer work in addition to a vibrant career, raising two children and getting a master’s degree in education administration while on leave from her career at Lane Community College.
But Driver Safety may be one of the true loves of Betty-Coe’s volunteering legacy. She feels that safety is so vital, especially when driving. Helping older adults drive safely also means that they can keep their dignity and freedom to drive as they age, which gives older adults the independence all of us want.
Betty-Coe said while teaching the course, her aim is for people to talk and discuss what they are learning in order to fully recognize the significance of the curriculum. After taking her courses, she hopes people will come out with more knowledge than before and teach those around them as well.
In addition to teaching the course and leading the program in Oregon, Betty has also worked to help other volunteer-led Driver Safety state programs
“In nearly 20 years of service with Driver Safety, Betty-Coe has demonstrated exemplary leadership qualities, holding every possible volunteer leadership position we have,” said Kyle Rakow, AARP Vice President and National Director of Driver Safety. “She has been an integral part of inspiring volunteers at all levels to grow and extend beyond their comfort zone. We are thankful for her endless passion and dedication,” he said.
Volunteering has been a core value to Betty-Coe, and she has made sure to pass it on to her two children and grandchildren. Her selflessness shines through to those who meet her. She teaches her family to not let a day go by without doing something for someone else. This demonstrates the values that Betty-Coe holds close.
Shannon Steele is a communications intern for AARP Oregon and Montana.
A History of Service Drives Betty DeBroekert's Goal to Make a Difference
By Shannon Steele