Hazel enjoying an event day in Lavender Hill, hosting inclusive dance with the CSRC. And with the continued support of The Chaeli Campaign, empowering her community (pre-Covid).
Caregiver, Parent and Community Ma: An Unstoppable Calling to Love
by Kirsten Steenkamp
2007, the year in which the United Nations first announced a World Day of Social Justice, celebrated annually on February 20. That same year – in her personal life, and especially in her career – Hazel solidified her commitment to social justice and activism.
But, what is social justice? And how did we come to know of this incredible woman?
Social justice refers to the fairness of institutions in society and gives us a platform to inquire and advocate for the rights of the vulnerable, marginalised, and oftentimes voiceless. Some critical social issues speak to essential healthcare access, clean water, community safety, and equal education.
The fight towards activism, just treatment, and bringing about social change – especially focused on disability – isn’t what established the relationship between Hazel and The Chaeli Campaign. But, it is what united it, perhaps forever.
This February Story of Hope is a celebration of an everyday activist that has become a human rights leader in her own right, a beacon of hope and love, and a Ma to many. Join the movement to spotlight those among us who are praised by their inner circles, but remain publicly unrecognised. Introducing to you, Hazel Mitchell.
Working for more than a decade as a carer at an assisted living facility in Cape Town, Hazel has always been dedicated to improving the quality of life for those who may otherwise stay ignored, unwanted, or even abandoned. The awareness of her power to change the lives of others came before the age of 12 – not out of choice, but of necessity. Hazel was called to care for her own family, decades prior. The adults in Hazel’s life could not cope.
Growing up in a small town in Namibia, Hazel’s parents got divorced and the family moved without her father to Springbok, South Africa. But, being unable to overcome her grief was part of the reason her mother’s spirit and in some ways, her will to live had been broken. In the ensuing years her mother suffered such severe depression she was admitted to Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital for weeks at a time, returning only for interspersed weekend stints.
With an unstable mother and her father absent in Namibia, Hazel and her two siblings were left in the care of their grandmother. But, elderly and in poor health, her grandmother’s caregiving duties were limited. Hazel knew she had to step up.
Getting a part-time job packing and cleaning at Spar after school, Hazel would return home each evening to relieve her grandmother of her duties, cook, and take care of her loved ones. Trying to provide and look after her family as best she could with the resources she had, Hazel left school at the age of 16.
Fortunately, Hazel’s mom became well enough to permanently return to the house some years later. And, for a time, it felt like all would be ok. But then, Hazel’s dad came back too. And so did the abuse…
As the months went on, Hazel’s life at home became unbearable. When her siblings left school and she had saved enough money, Hazel decided to move to Cape Town to make a life for herself. After meeting and marrying Keith, the two decided to start a family of their own and before long, the couple was expecting their first child!
Carried successfully full-term, their first-born did not survive labour. Tragically, the next several years that followed brought tremendous disappointment and sadness. Hazel simply said, “I lost a lot of children”.
Each pregnancy accompanied a lifetime of dreams and fantasies. But, with each miscarriage and stillborn, Hazel grew weary. Every time, doctors were saddened to have to tell Hazel that her womb was not sufficiently closing to support foetal growth: there was just no way she would be able to grow a healthy child.
On Hazel’s final attempt at having a child of her own, the pregnancy was suddenly interrupted at 6 months. Exceptionally premature and unsure whether a baby could even survive the shock, a beautiful baby girl was born. Weighing a staggering 995g, with a fragile body and extremely weak lungs, Kayleen was alive.
The first days after Kayleen’s birth were critical. And miraculously, Hazel was blessed with an abundant milk supply. In fact, Hazel produced so much that she was comfortably capable of providing sustenance to Kayleen, her brother’s newborn, and the entire prem ward at Groote Schuur Hospital where Kayleen was being cared for.
The doctors saw substantial growth over the next couple of weeks, but it was not sufficient. Kayleen had remained attached to feeding tubes and oxygen machines and was still barely able to breathe independently.
Following the longest period one of Hazel’s babies had survived – 3 weeks – the doctors, once more, had to bear terrible news. But unlike the last times when Hazel could summon the courage to mourn each loss and say goodbye to her children before, she now just did not have the strength.
Keith understood the dreadful pain Hazel was experiencing and knew that she couldn’t go through it again. Nevertheless, doctors needed her there. They explained that when the plugs and support machine are pulled away from Kayleen’s tiny body, that they would need the mother to officially sign the death certificate. And so, Hazel decided to hold Kayleen in her arms for the last time.
Shattered at the idea of her only baby not surviving, Hazel shares with me what happened in the quiet moments before the tubes were removed. Sitting in a rocking chair, away from Keith and their family who came to support, Hazel spoke to Kayleen. “I don’t even care if I die. You can go”, she told Kayleen earnestly, “but I will follow you”.
Frustrated and angry at Kayleen for letting her down, Hazel begged her to stay alive: “How can you do this to me? You know you would’ve been the only one…”
The doctor unplugged all the tubing and Hazel says that after an expulsion of air, the doctors knew Kayleen had taken her last breath. With doctors asking to take the precious little body away, Hazel asked for a few minutes alone. Then, as if to start life over, Kayleen cried for the very first time!
There were tears everywhere. Doctors, nurses, the family were stunned – and Hazel could not have been more proud of her miracle child.
A couple of months of Intensive Care passed and on Keith’s birthday, doctors called for Kayleen to be brought to her forever home. She weighed 3 kilograms.
After her childbearing and, significantly, her nursing experience, Hazel says “I can love any child like my own.” The profound gift to want the best for each child was compounded when Kayleen was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Hereafter, Hazel was adamant to learn all she could about how she could best care for Kayleen. The years that passed were full of hard lessons, lifechanging experiences, and an even greater capacity to love. Hazel was inspired to become qualified in first aid, disability care, and Early Childhood Development (ECD).
Then, in 2007, Hazel really came to understand the profound impact certain experiences had imprinted on her calling to serve and protect.
It was the year Kayleen became the first beneficiary to receive an electric wheelchair from The Chaeli Campaign. Not long after, Hazel began to work as the organisation’s community worker and liaison for Lavender Hill. When the Chaeli Sports and Recreation Club (CSRC) was founded, Kayleen became one of their wheelchair dancers – training every Sunday and participating in national competitions. Since then, Kayleen and Hazel have become intrinsic to the workings of this holistic disability organisation in Cape Town.
The years that passed have brought incredible meaning and purpose to Hazel’s life, mainly through the soup kitchen she runs from her home with Keith. The couple has opened their hearts to cook twice-a-day for 32 kids in the community. They have also extended their home to look after 8 girls during the week, whom they assist with homework and personal hygiene needs.
Growing up very poor in Namibia, Hazel refuses to let children go hungry. “If I have R20 in my purse and you need bread, I will give it to you because I don’t need bread right now.” This is why all the kids – everyone in the community – call her Ma Hazel. Beyond nourishment, Hazel is a role model to children in her area. “There must always be love in children’s faces. I want to keep all the children safe.”
Hazel dreams that one day she can create a safe house in her community. She doesn’t need a lot of money, “just enough to build”. She tells her kids that their parents are still here and that if you “get love, get clean and get enough to eat”, all will be ok.
Her hope for the kids under her care is that “even if it’s not all – even if it’s only 2 out of the 32 kids – for them to make something of their lives, get a good education, stay in school.”
Hazel’s remarkable character motivates those who know her story to be more caring and supportive of people who are suffering or struggling. Lavender Hill is lucky to have the guidance and care of Hazel, an everyday activist whose determination to serve is unwavering.