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Our Miss Hazel

by Maggie Van Ostrand

One of the wonders of our mountain communities is British-born Hazel Helliwell, proprietress of "Happy House Pre-School" in Pine Mountain Club.

Dubbed "Miss Hazel" by the hundreds of pre-schoolers who have been left in her care since she opened the school in 1997, Hazel owned another pre-school in Santa Maria for the prior ten years.

After 17 years in the business, Hazel smiles and says, "I'm getting used to it now."

She left the teaching profession in England when her investigation of local nursery schools for her then-young son, Nick (currently with the U.S. Forest Service), revealed none that satisfied her stringent requirements. It was then she decided to open a school of her own when the family relocated to California.

By the time daughter Rebecca (currently a student at Frazier Mountain High) was 18 months old, Happy House was up and running.

Hazel notes that some of her original students now have children of their own and wonders with a grin, "How can that be, when I'm only 21 myself?"

The favorite pastime of pre-school girls hasn't changed over the years; it's still "dress up" and "playing house," games into which little boys get willingly dragged, though they prefer playing with action figures to playing role-model husbands.

Kids also play "Store," but not with old shoe boxes as cash registers and Monopoly money for cash. Nowadays, they have plastic credit cards to swipe through a card reader, a plastic computer register, and a scanner that makes the same beeps as the grown-ups' check-out scanners. This will be good training for when the boys grow up and have wives who play "Mall," only with real credit cards.

What has changed, says Hazel, is the self-esteem of today's girls, as opposed to the low self-esteem suffered by little girls of previous generations. Today, girls stand up for themselves and brook no nonsense. They no longer "meekly agree," says Hazel.

Hazel met husband of 28 years, John Helliwell, owner of "Cleaning Solutions," whose truck is a familiar sight in Frazier Mountain communities, in the pub of a British bed & breakfast. She fell for him when he offered her his last "ciggie." (Neither smokes today.) Hazel was a student at Exeter University, working her first summer job, as a chambermaid, and John was an electrician, dating one of her girlfriends. The poor girlfriend ended up with a mere member of a local rock group.

The Helliwells rarely take vacations, one exception being a trip to Europe to celebrate their Silver Anniversary. When they returned, they renewed their vows in a Renaissance ceremony, with Nick and Rebecca as Best Man and Maid of Honor. Hazel's humorous dad said to John, "I just can't keep giving her away."

Hazel and John frequently entertain, an attraction of every party being John's collection of Presley memorabilia, enhanced by another collection of classic car-related toys, photos, and ceramic boxes -- the bigger the fins the better. The left rear side of a 1959 pink Cadillac, a real one, adorns the bar in their rec room. Elvis rules, but only when Hazel isn't home.

Hazel's hobbies include cooking (a specialty is chicken enchiladas), walking, swimming laps, reading (fiction and non-fiction) and her favorite, The Bunco Group.

The Bunco Group comprises 12 local ladies, longtime friends, who get together once a month for pot luck dinners and the nine-die, pure chance game of Bunco.

The Bunco Group is more than dice and scorepads, more than a night with the girls, more than a night of good food. The best thing about it, says Hazel, is the giggling. The members have a great deal to giggle about, especially if Hazel regales them with an overheard conversation between two of her past preschool three-year-old girls, the source of their words still a mystery.

Said the first three-year old to the other, "Are you a virgin?" Said the second, "Not yet."

As John said, "Hazel's a great organizer, and a big aid to the community.

We think so, too. Reprinted by permisson of Maggie Van Ostrand

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