Steamboat Springs It was hard for arriving passengers not to smile as Donna Hellyer greeted them Christmas Day at Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
Wearing a Mrs. Claus costume, Hellyer was passing out candy canes and coloring books to the kids.
“Everyone comes in happy, especially when we get snow,” said Hellyer, 79. “Some of them have never seen snow.”
A few of the 879 passengers who arrived Tuesday wanted to take her picture.
“What a cool way to be welcomed to Steamboat,” said Jessica Staten, a Florida resident who was visiting Steamboat for the first time.
For 16 years, Hellyer has worked part time during the winter travel season for the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association. Along with information, she provides the first impressions to many of the people arriving at YVRA, and Hellyer has built quite the fan base throughout the years.
“I just noticed her right away,” Louisiana traveler Brenda Bedford said. “She was so cute.”
Some children anticipate seeing the “candy lady” each winter, and she often gets hugs from visitors who recognize Hellyer’s familiar and hospitable smile.
“It’s not Steamboat unless you run into Donna,” Texas traveler Mike Henjum said after recognizing Hellyer. “It’s the whole mystique of Steamboat. Everyone we encounter is just like her. Friendly. It’s a friendly town, and it sets the tone.”
Assistant Airport Manager Dean Smith called Hellyer a staple at YVRA.
“She’s such a doll,” Smith said. “Everybody loves her.”
What many people likely do not know about are Hellyer’s strong ties to the Yampa Valley. She originally is from Denver but has lived in Hayden for 52 years. Her daughter Jackie Heuer described her as an advocate for the town of Hayden who is not afraid to express her opinions.
“She loves being involved and having a say,” said Heuer, who also works at YVRA.
Hellyer also has ties to the skiing heritage in Steamboat. She and her late husband, Bill, supplied the horses for the first Cowboy Downhill events at Steamboat Ski Area, and their horses were used during Winter Carnival skijoring events. The Hellyers also were the first to offer horse-drawn sleigh rides at the ski area.
During the summer, she works at the Hayden Heritage Center Museum, and she hopes to continue working at YVRA as long as possible.
“She’d probably do it for free if they asked her,” Heuer said.
Hellyer said she enjoys the job because she gets to visit with kids and adults who are excited to start their vacations.
“They’re all fun,” she said.
It previously was unclear whether Hellyer was going to be able to return to YVRA this winter. A medical condition sent her to a Denver hospital, and she had to spend a couple of months rehabbing at the Doak Walker Care Center during the summer. Throughout the ordeal, Heuer said her mother was intent on getting well enough to return to work at YVRA.
“God wouldn’t take me, so you’re stuck with me,” Hellyer said.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com