Degree opens door for woman to lead, advocate for others

by Abigayle Sloan, ’07

Perseverance is in Maurilia “Molly” Ortiz Blakely’s DNA. Her seemingly insurmountable challenges began when she was growing up during the Great Depression in Beeville, Texas.

Maurilia “Molly” Ortiz Blakely

Born in 1928, she was one of five children born to a Mexican-American mother and an Irish father. Both of her parents died by the time she was 6; Blakely and her siblings were sent to an orphanage. Several years later, her mother’s sister came for the children and raised them as her own. When she recalled her childhood, Blakely said her father always insisted that his children receive educations, despite the chronic segregation in Texas at the time.

“My dad always told me, ‘Education is the key to the future. You educate the woman and you educate the whole family,’” she said.

In her formative years, her aunt taught Blakely to embrace her Mexican heritage and to stay loyal to her Catholic values. She said those values have guided her for nearly eight decades.

At the age of 17, Blakely left high school before graduation and got married. She moved to Grand Rapids with her husband in 1953 to look for work. By 1966, she was a single mother in her late-30s raising five children and working full time in the meat department of a local grocery store.

Blakely was laid off from her job after 20 years. Health complications from overwork put her on bed rest and forced her to re-evaluate her life’s path. She was reminded of her father’s advice to get an education.

She called her decision to go back to school a dream. “It’s something that is in you and you can’t deny it,” she said.

Blakely enrolled in night school and earned a high school diploma. In 1976, she registered for classes at Grand Valley, seeking a degree in social work.

“I got a scholarship and I didn’t even know what a scholarship was,” she said, laughing.

During the day she worked at the Latino Action Council (now the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan) and attended Grand Valley classes in the evenings. She made up for her missed work hours on the weekends.

Navigating through college courses as a non-traditional student in the 1970s was intimidating, but Blakely insisted that she didn’t have time to be ashamed. She was determined.

“Going back to college at the age of 47 helped me to find myself,” she said. “You grow up with a feeling that you should have done more, but until my family was grown, I couldn’t finish my education. Going back to school not only helped me with my inner growth, but enabled me to help other people.”

After three years, Blakely graduated with a degree in social work and counseling. It was 1979.

“I didn’t want a job where I had to sit behind a desk,” she said, “I wanted action. I was so anxious to get started. I always dreamed of going into social work because I wanted to work with kids and I saw the need.”

Her dreams came to fruition when she became the coordinator at the Hispanic Institute in Grand Rapids, which offered adult education classes for Spanish-speaking residents. She later worked as the emergency shelter director for the Catholic Human Development Office. She worked daily with the city’s homeless and spent her extra time advocating for local Latina women and inner-city children.

With a vision to share her Mexican culture with her children and the community, she co-founded the Mexican Festival, which is one of the longest running ethnic festivals in Grand Rapids.

After several years of working as a translator for the Department of Social Services, Saint Mary’s Hospital and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, she retired and is being cared for by her adult children.

Blakely reflected fondly on the obstacles she overcame to provide opportunities for Latina women. “I carried a big load. Sure, I was called a few names along the way, but I wasn’t afraid because God gave me the courage,” said the 85 year old.

Many awards are displayed on the walls and shelves of Blakely’s home on the west side of Grand Rapids, but her Grand Valley diploma has a special place among her family photos on a table in the living room.

"I didn’t do all of this for the recognition. I did it because it’s the right thing to do and it needed to be done,” she said.

Blakely always had the heart to face life’s toughest challenges, but she said her education unlocked her confidence to make cultural and social changes in the community. She has opened doors for generations of Latinos to follow.

Community Outreach Week sees double the participation

Community Outreach Week celebrated its fifth year of collaboration between the Community Service Learning Center and the Alumni Association. The partnership brought out 930 participants who volunteered in their communities around the country and the world, including Japan, Germany and Thailand.

Get spotted volunteering during Community Outreach Week 2014. Send in photos of you and your friends volunteering in your neighborhood between March 24-30, and you could win an alumni Laker prize package. For more information, visit


Alumni movers and shakers

Alumni, faculty and staff members, and friends pushed, pulled and lifted at the Freshmen Move-In alumni volunteer event on August 20. More than 120 alumni volunteers welcomed students and parents to campus and carried items into Robinson, Swanson, North B and C and other living centers on campus.


Grand Valley alumni cheer on a runner at the 2013 River Bank Run.

Alumni run, walk, wheel at River Bank Run 2013

More than 65 Lakers were a part of the first Laker for a Lifetime Team at the River Bank Run on May 11. Lakers from as far as Denver and Washington, D.C., traveled to Grand Rapids to participate in the largest 25K road race in the country with 25,000 other walkers, runners and wheelchair racers.

Friends and family cheered on the participants at the GVSU spirit station along the course, and celebrated at the post-race party on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. The team raised more than $8,600 for the Grand Valley Fund, which supports students with financial assistance, skill development and educational opportunities. Everyone is welcome to participate with the team next year on May 10.




Golf outings raise thousands for students

The All-Alumni, Football Alumni, Irwin Club and Corky Meinecke golf outings collectively raised more than $40,000 this summer to support Grand Valley scholarships and programs. Approximately 400 golfers and volunteers participated in the events that took place at the Meadows Golf Course on campus.


Page last modified November 18, 2013