Published June 3, 2019
When Donald Paulk was 11 years old, his father died at the age of 34. He grew up one of 11 children living in a Buffalo housing project. He sang in a group called the Energetics as a child, and joined a street gang when he was a teenager.
Paula Oliver was raised by her grandmother in Jamaica. After arriving in the U.S. at 17, she moved to Buffalo as a single parent with a 6-month-old child. She worked two jobs, but lived with the woman who provided her with child care services because she could not afford an apartment.
Time has been kind to both Paulk and Oliver, so much so that they both were honored last month at the UB Educational Opportunity Center’s annual Alumni Awards and Recognition Reception. Both count their UBEOC experience as one of the biggest reasons they went from troubled young people with uncertain futures to the latest headliners in the EOC’s legacy of transforming lives.
EOC administrators often refer to their graduates as “redemption stories,” and Paulk and Oliver are the latest to celebrate this EOC tradition.
“Once again we are excited about celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates and alumni,” says Julius Gregg Adams, executive director of the UBEOC. “Mr. Paulk and Ms. Oliver are evidence of the importance of supporting people and helping them overcome obstacles that life puts in your way.
“The UBEOC takes pride in participating in the growth and development of all of its students so that they can truly become the people and professionals that they can and want to be.”
Paulk was named the 2019 UBEOC Distinguished Alumni Honoree, presented to an alumna/alumnus who embodies the principles and values of the UBEOC, and turns efforts into achievements.
Oliver received the 2019 Arthur O. Eve Education and Community Service Award. This award, which honors the legacy of Arthur O. Eve, former deputy speaker of the New York State Assembly under whose leadership the state’s EOC centers were launched and established, is given to a current UBEOC student or alumna/alumnus who demonstrates leadership, advocacy, community service and/or commitment to education.
Both Paulk and Oliver were recognized at the UBEOC’s Alumni Awards and Recognition Reception held May 17 at UBEOC, 555 Ellicott St.; the center’s annual graduation ceremony took place on May 22 in Slee Hall on UB’s North Campus.
The theme of this year’s alumni reception was “Saluting Your Prediction of Success.”
“UBEOC alumni forecasted their success when they decided to enroll at EOC,” says Margot Barrett Keysor, UBEOC alumni affairs administrator. “They created their own futures through discipline and determination. EOC alumni truly embody their dreams and drive.”
Paulk enrolled in the EOC’s College Preparation Program after serving in the military. As the first member of his family to earn a college degree, he made a career out of working and volunteering with mentally and physically challenged youth and substance abusers in Florida and California. Locally, he was a resident service coordinator for the Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition, a mental health coordinator at the Community Action Organization, a mental health specialist at Baker Hall School and a case manager at St. Augustine’s Center.
Paulk says his experience with UBEOC taught him to think of the possibilities in his life, beyond what he was “told” to do in the military.
“The EOC inspired me to think beyond what I was told to do, and instead to think about what I ‘could’ do,” he says.
Paulk currently assists veterans involved in the Drug and Family Treatment Courts in Buffalo who are experiencing mental health issues. He is also a DJ at A Gathering Place, a social program run by Catholic Charities for adults age 60 and older who may need assistance with activities of daily living.
Paulk is the third vice commander at the American Legion Jesse Clipper Post No. 430, where he plays bugle TAPS for flag ceremonies and military funerals. Post No. 430 also honored Paulk as the recipient of the 2018 Legionnaire of the Year Award. In recognition of his service and commitment to the Western New York community, Paulk was awarded a 2019 Community Change Maker Award from the Mary B. Talbert Civic and Cultural Club of Buffalo.
Oliver took a different path to the same EOC stage of honor. She worked as a customer service representative for HSBC for 10 years before she was laid off. At that time, Oliver was married and had four children under the age of 10.
She enrolled in the UBEOC’s registered medical assistant (RMA) program. As part of that program, she took part in clinical internships at Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute (now Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center). Her commitment to excellence and success in her internships led to her being chosen as the EOC’s 2004 Student Commencement speaker.
Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center hired Oliver upon graduation, where she continues to work as a clinical support assistant in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit.
She also serves as Roswell’s CSEA union first vice president, is a diversity advocate on the Labor Relations Board and a member of the African American Roswell Network. As a union steward on the Labor Relations Board, she assists with lobbying efforts and travels out of the region — from Buffalo to New York City and Florida.
When reflecting upon her time as a UBEOC student, Oliver says her marriage became strained when she was a UBEOC student. Walking the halls of UBEOC, she says, gave her a sense of belonging.
“Faculty and staff kept telling me I was amazing, so I began to feel important,” she says. “I soaked up everything EOC offered like a sponge.”
Oliver notes the EOC created “independence in me.”
“EOC knew how to meet me where I was at. I am living my best life now,” she says. “I like who I am.”
Oliver went on to earn a BS in social work from Buffalo State College while working full time. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she volunteered at Crisis Services Buffalo and Erie County, answering hotline calls and assisting rape victims.
She is an active member of the Old Landmark New Covenant Church of God in Christ, where she formed “Things Pertaining to Life,” a young adult support group that offers mentoring to youth ages 12 to 21, helping them with job skills, life lessons and referrals to community resources.