VANCOUVER — Mollie Hands drives a red ’69 Mustang in beautiful condition. It’s a common and eye-catching sight in the parking lot of the Washington State School for the Blind, where Hands volunteers several times a week.
“Let me tell you, I pick up a ton of guys in this thing,” joked 79-year-old Hands.
Though the sweet ride makes an immediate impression, it’s far from the most remarkable thing about her: The white-haired and bespectacled Hands has been volunteering at the school for nearly as long as her car has been on the road.
For 46 years, Hands has helped blind and visually impaired children participate in activities such as swimming, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and performances at a children’s theater in Portland. Sometimes it’s for a single day, and other times it’s for a weeklong trip to Camp Magruder on the Oregon Coast.
“It would probably be easier to say what Mollie doesn’t do here,” said Adrienne Fernandez, volunteer coordinator at the school, who has known Hands for 22 years. “She’s just a constant in the lives of our students, promoting independence and giving them encouragement to find their way in the world.”
Hands estimates that she spends somewhere between four and eight hours at the school every week.
“It’s so wonderful. I just can’t leave,” Hands said.
Nestled amid a campus of verdant lawns and looping walkways, the Washington State School for the Blind has been in operation since 1886 — three years before Washington was officially a state.
The school’s mission is to help blind and visually impaired children from infancy to college become independent in daily living skills. With the advent of so many modern technologies geared toward helping people with visual impairments, the possibilities for these children are ever-expanding.
For the gaps that practice, knowledge and technology can’t fill, it’s hardworking staff and volunteers like Hands who offer much-needed guidance.
With the help of volunteers, blind and visually impaired children can experience downhill skiing, tandem bike-riding, snowmobiling, shopping trips to the mall and more. Volunteers serve as a guide, a spotter and a person to offer encouragement and help children build confidence.
“It’s true that we are in a sighted world,” Fernandez said. “But visually impaired individuals are able to do anything they set their minds to.”
Tradition of volunteering
Hands’ legacy of service began back in high school, when her mother took her to a hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, and encouraged her to volunteer at the cafeteria.
“My mother volunteered, and she didn’t work outside the home, so that was something we all did,” Hands said. “All the kids volunteered someplace.”
After moving to Vancouver to be with her brother, Hands worked at The Columbian for 30 years. It was in the newspaper, back in September 1973, that she initially found the listing for the Washington State School for the Blind in the calls for volunteers section. She decided to try it out — and the rest is history.
According to Fernandez, about 4,000 students have been touched by Hands’ efforts over the years.
“She’s not only encouraging to students but to the staff members. We love her. She’s dedicated her whole life to the school and to supporting the staff. She’s mind-boggling, really. We can’t say enough about Mollie,” Fernandez said.
It’s clear that Hands is well-loved. Walking around campus, Hands greeted virtually every passerby. When asked about Hands, anyone who knew her was quick and liberal with praise.
“Mollie is about as warm and giving and helpful as it gets,” said Richard Fay, a fellow volunteer at the school. “As my wife says, Mollie is everyone’s grandmother. It doesn’t matter what age you are; it could be from 7 to 70, 8 to 80. That’s just the kind of person she is.”
Outside of volunteering, Hands is a regular globe-trotter. Over the course of her life, she’s lived in France, Australia and South Africa, and visited many other countries. In 2018, she traveled to France by herself. Hands never married, despite the dude-magnet car, nor did she have children of her own.
Witness to change
In her free time, Hands spreads love in the form of handmade greeting cards. “People say, ‘Oh Mollie, I loved getting your card.’ And I want to say, ‘Well why the hell didn’t you write me back?’ I like getting cards too, you know!”
Over her long volunteer experience, Hands witnessed many changes in the school and the field of education at large, tightening restrictions and higher security precautions among them. Though policies and teachers came and went, one thing stayed the same: Hands’ devotion to the kids.
“I can’t think that I really like anything better than being right with the kids,” Hands said. “There’s so many kids that say, ‘Yeah! Mollie taught me how to swim!’ “
As anyone who’s kept up with anything for over 45 years can probably attest, it takes more than simple enjoyment to maintain that dedication.
“I think everybody should volunteer, that’s for sure. If we all volunteered, we’d be in a lot better place,” she said. “Everyone has a couple hours they don’t need to sit watching TV.”