Like any great leader, Elinor Brelsford is quick to recall the contributions of others. Having recently celebrated her 100th birthday, the retired early-childhood educator can still remember the parents who helped lay the concrete, paint the walls, and fill the sandbox of The Oaks Parent-Child Workshop, the cooperative preschool that she led for more than three decades.
The Oaks originated out of the postwar baby boom. Hoff Heights, a large development situated where Adams Elementary School now sits, housed many young families, with limited resources and an abundance of children. “The whole area outside those homes was sand,” said Brelsford. “The children didn’t have any place to play. They were just desperate for something.”
The parents obtained the use of a large hall for the children but soon recognized the need for a formally trained administrator. So Brelsford, who has an advanced degree in child development, took the helm but never imagined how many lives she’d touch. “I thought it was just a temporary position,” she laughed, “and it ended up being 31 years.”
In the early days, the adults tied ropes between old chairs to partition off sections of the hall for tricycle riding and block play. “We saw what great things were happening with the children,” she recalled, “and really wanted to keep it going.”
Brelsford worked tirelessly to help establish a permanent home for the school: an old house across the street from Oak Park, only to have the building burn to the ground before they moved in. “I picked up the phone and heard, ‘This is the fire department. Your house just burned to the ground,’” she said. “They really meant it. Later, they just shoveled the ashes into a truck; it had burned so thoroughly.”
Marilyn Statucki (Oaks director 1980-2009) believes Brelsford saved the school. “She is really the one who masterminded getting the program solidified,” said Statucki. “She provided the focus. She was the pivotal point around which the program could run.”
While working through legal, logistical, and monetary challenges, Brelsford utilized all potential resources. “We used to sell persimmons for 10 cents apiece to help raise funds,” she said. “The tree was all black from being burned on one side.”
Once the building was rebuilt and the land permanently secured, Brelsford’s focus returned to the families, for whom she prepared evening presentations on child development. “The classes made so much difference with the parents and the relationships they formed with the children,” she explained.
Brelsford’s many rich and joyful memories include watching happy children jump from a wooden platform to the mattress below. “They thought it was hilarious and the most fun,” she said. “It just gave them so much courage.” Then there was the time a family with 13 children brought their pet monkey to school, where, of course, it escaped. “He was climbing all over,” she laughed. “We thought we’d never get him back in the cage.”
Seven decades later, the persimmon tree still stands in front of the school’s office. Preschoolers chase each other through its fallen leaves, playing the same pretend games as generations before them, making friends and growing up in a community established by Elinor’s devotion.
The Oaks Parent-Child Workshop’s 37th Annual Auction benefit is on Saturday, March 4, 3-7 p.m., at the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center (1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). See theoakspcw.org.