BEOC honors four alumni for their path to success

Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center building.

Awardees include an entrepreneur, a postgraduate scholar and health care workers

Release Date: May 23, 2024

Ben Hilligas.

Ben Hilligas

“BEOC students have such resilience and creativity. We are never surprised but always amazed by their achievements academically, in business, in their personal lives and in providing service to the community. It is our honor to be associated with this year’s four award winners. ”
Ben Hilligas, executive director
Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Four graduates of the Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC) exemplifying the agency’s vision and mission of “redemption stories” were honored at the organization’s May 15 graduation.

“We are always so proud of the accomplishments of our graduates and alumni,” said Ben Hilligas, executive director of the BEOC, which is dedicated to transforming lives through education for underserved populations.

“BEOC students have such resilience and creativity. We are never surprised but always amazed by their achievements academically, in business, in their personal lives and in providing service to the community. It is our honor to be associated with this year’s four award winners,” he added.

Margot Barrett Keysor, BEOC alumni affairs administrator, echoed Hilligas’ sentiments. “I am in awe of their vision, courage and conviction to achieve,” she said.

The awardees include Tyra Blodgett and Retha Jones (both recipients of the Arthur O. Eve Education and Community Award), and Raquel Calhoun and Toyolene Wallace (both recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award).

Tyra Blodgett head shot.

Tyra Blodgett: Dental assisting, 2012

Blodgett’s faith and service to our community is central to her life, according to the BEOC officials. Her devotion to elevating the spirit of those in need is demonstrated through her selfless acts, they said.

Blodgett enrolled in the BEOC’s dental assisting program, and after graduation worked as a certified orthodontic assistant for Katherine Rand Orthodontics, and as a certified dental assistant at Dr. Bob’s Dental Care. She currently works as an allied health assistant in the BEOC dental assistant and registered medical assistant programs.

Blodgett’s allegiance to advocate for those in need is displayed through her church ministry and community service, BEOC officials noted. She received the “Women Touching the World” award from Unlimited Possibilities Overcoming Poverty Ministry Inc. As a member of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Lackawanna, Blodgett was a marriage facilitator for three years. She also led a group for children ages 5-16, assisting with summer camp and field trip experiences, and was a church Girl Scout troop leader.

Her volunteer work includes being a mentor at Jericho Road Community Health Center for women aged 19-25, helping them in securing transitional support services; being a counselor at Aids Community Services, procuring food vouchers and bus passes and referring clients to community agencies; a life skills educator for girls ages 11-17 at Hopevale School Residential Detention Center; and a classroom aide working with troubled youth at Baker Victory Services.

“I believe people just need a little help to be the best they can be,” she said. “I devote my time to serve the less fortunate.” 

Retha Jones head shot.

Retha Jones: Certified nursing assistant 2001, GED 1994

Jones has seized opportunities and has overcome adversity, BEOC officials said.

Her life experiences include being a 20-year-old mother of three when enrolled in the BEOC high school equivalency program; a domestic violence survivor; a recovering addict who this year celebrates 23 years being clean; a certified nursing assistant at Grace Manor Nursing Home for eight years; a patient navigator at Greater Buffalo Accountable Healthcare Network; and Niagara Frontier Transit Authority paratransit bus operator.

Jones is a New York State Insurance Fund customer service representative, reviewing and processing claims between New York State employers and the state Workers’ Compensation Board. She previously worked at the Erie County Department of Social Services as an adult services caseworker and community resource technician.

Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in mental health advocacy from Empire State College and an associate degree in general studies/social science from SUNY Erie.

Her volunteer efforts have included Better Buffalo, Buffalo City Mission, the Veteran’s One Stop, the Buffalo Community Police Advisory Committee, and the Family Justice Center.

Jones is a motivational speaker, including speaking to audiences at Narcotics Anonymous and Diamond Girls of WNY. As a comedian, she has been an opener for Narcotics Anonymous headliners in Ohio, Florida and Rochester. The Buffalo Helium Club has voted her “One of Buffalo’s Funniest Comedians.”

Jones currently looking into buying a house and getting a New York State lodging license to room those released from rehabilitative services.

“I have no secrets”, she says. “People identify with me because of my life experiences. I am glad to share them and lift others up in life.  I just do what I do.”

Raquel Calhoun head shot.

Raquel Calhoun: dental assisting 2012

Calhoun is a risk-taker who visualized a dream and realized it, BEOC officials said. An entrepreneur, she is the owner/operator of Calhoun Custom Creations LLC, a home-based custom bakery.

Calhoun enrolled at then-Buffalo State College and dropped out upon becoming pregnant. Returning to her family in Derby for help in raising her child, she worked for T-Mobile and later moved into an apartment in Lackawanna reshaping her life as a young mother.

At the bus stop one day, she saw an ad for BEOC promoting courses and careers in allied health and she enrolled in the dental assisting program. Calhoun worked as a dental assistant in general dentistry, and as an orthodontist assistant and clinical manager. She was also involved in promoting hygiene practices to children in West Seneca.

Calhoun was furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to turn her hobby of baking into a business.

She enrolled in a business-accelerator program at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where she learned the legal, financial and marketing aspects of starting and running a business. Calhoun was selected commencement speaker and won $3,000 in pitch contest.

Calhoun is a UB Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership student in the Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program. She is also a volunteer consultant at IC Success and is in her third round of mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Calhoun’s husband passed away recently, and she is now the mother of five children, ages 2 to 15. She said she relies on her professional and business development skills, and her renewed courage and confidence to meet life’s transition again to build her and her children’s lives.

Toyolene Wallace head shot.

Toyolene Wallace: Dental assisting 2013

Wallace exemplifies the definition of self-empowerment, BEOC officials said.

“I came from nothing, a black girl in the projects,” Wallace said. “I decided it was time to take that narrative out.”

A single mother on social services and pregnant when she decided to make a major life move and enroll in the EOC’s dental assisting program. While a student, Wallace maintained her overnight position as a residential aide at Baker Victory Services. She balanced motherhood, her job and class work, including 300 hours of required clinical experience.

After graduation, Wallace worked full time as a dental assistant at Aspen Dental and continued to work at Baker Victory Services at night. Her dental career also included working for dentists Joseph Hyde and Andrew Todesco, where she excelled professionally. Wallace had to leave both her dental career and her work Baker Victory Services due to a debilitating health diagnosis.

After qualifying to receive Social Security disability benefits, Wallace enrolled in college. In 2020, she completed her associate’s degree in liberal arts/general studies at SUNY Erie. She then earned a bachelor’s in health care management in May 2023 at Trocaire College.

Wallace continues to envision where her self-empowerment will ultimately lead. She is taking online courses at Hilbert College, anticipating graduating in December with a master’s in public service administration and a concentration in health care, while also working full-time at Erie County Medical Center.

Media Contact Information

Charles Anzalone
News Content Manager
Educational Opportunity Center, Law,
Nursing, Honors College, Student Activities

Tel: 716-645-4600