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Kyla Relaford

Kyla Relaford: A Life of Service and Selflessness

By Gerianne Wright Downs
April 2018

The untimely death April 15 at 37 of Kyla Relaford '02  G '04, director of the Educational Opportunity Program and mentor to hundreds, has left students and staff with a hole in their collective heart.

“We often hear people say that everyone is replaceable, and I suppose that’s true. But some people leave a hole that’s felt for years,” said Dr. Michele Carpentier, director of student support services and assistant vice president for student affairs. “Though we may be able to move on with the technical day-to-day activities that we need to do and that need to happen, there is no replacing the spirit of someone like Kyla, the heart of someone like Kyla, the soul of someone like Kyla, someone who can have such a profound impact in so many ways.”

The Educational Opportunity Program provides academic, personal and financial support to New York state residents who have the academic potential to earn a college degree. Historically academically and economically disadvantaged, these students demonstrate a high level of personal motivation to succeed. Relaford recognized this potential and nurtured it.

Depth of Impact

“We don’t realize how big an impact this woman had with the very marginalized people in society,” Carpentier said. "She was the rock in the middle of the pond, the rock that creates ripples upon ripples. Her work here on campus was immensely significant — her work was known and respected locally and all over the state and country. We’ve been receiving calls from all over the country, people telling us of the impact Kyla had on their lives.”

“Kyla was a lot of things to a lot of people,” said Cassie Christman, Relaford’s assistant director in EOP. “She was a mentor, a friend, a colleague, a rock. Her reach went beyond EOP students.”

“How do you say goodbye to someone who has been in our life day in, day out?” asked EOP Counselor Amy Daniels. “She is the first person I ever worked with. We saw each other every day. It was more than working with each other; we were part of each other’s lives.”

These friends and colleagues who have been trying to deal with their own grief know they have to be strong for the throngs of students who have been stopping by the EOP offices in the Angell College Center since getting a campus email Sunday night informing every one of her passing. Her EOP family gathered the day after her death, and on April 19 a campus-and-community-wide vigil, organized by Fuerza, the Black and Latino Student Union, was held in the Warren Ballrooms of the Angell College Center. And alumni and friends living in the New York City area are invited to attend a vigil Saturday, April 28 at 7 p.m. in Union Square Park, 14th St. and Union Square.

“Kyla was a lot of things to a lot of people. She was a mentor, a friend, a colleague, a rock. Her reach went beyond EOP students.”

Oluwatoyin Oluwanifise, a senior from Queens, said she feels lost with Relaford’s passing.

“She was an advocate for all students of color. She always did more than her job asked of her. Who can we look to now?” Oluwanifise asked.

Remembering the ‘Mission’

“Kyla recognized that people need to take a moment for themselves, but we also know she’d want the work to continue. The worst thing would be to give up on our students and forget about the mission — to give students the opportunity to succeed and graduate,” Daniels said.

That dedication was borne of a deep-seated desire to reach students who needed her help. While working toward an undergraduate degree in anthropology at SUNY Plattsburgh, she interned during the summer of 2000 with Hope Community Resources in Anchorage, Alaska, where she worked with the developmentally disabled community. As Dr. David Mowry, then-director of the Honors Program said in a letter of recommendation he wrote in 2002, her Hope Community experience cemented her “firm commitment to a career in human services.”

Relaford began work as an academic advisor in August 2002, interned in EOP in the spring 2004 semester and became an EOP counselor for the 2004-2005 academic year. In 2007 she was appointed associate director of the program, and in 2012 was named its director.

‘Devastating Loss

’“Kyla’s loss is devastating to the entire campus, but to those students for whom she was a voice and an advocate, the loss is beyond comprehension,” said President John Ettling. “Students could turn to Kyla for support, comfort, love — sometimes even tough love — from the time they arrived as freshmen during EOP’s Summer Institute until long after they graduated. She was the embodiment of EOP.”

Ashley Rivera ’15 was the product of foster care whose own mother had died from drugs when Rivera was 13. In Relaford, she found the mother she had been searching for her entire life.

“Kyla has been my guiding light; she means everything to me and is the only reason I am successful and a semi-put-together adult today,” said Rivera, who is now project assistant with New York State Systems of Care, Office of Mental Health.

“The moment I knew I could trust and depend on Kyla for anything was my EOP summer in 2011. I had the worst anxiety of my life.”

Rivera recounted how she had panic attacks during the middle of the night when she was an Institute student, attacks that landed her in the hospital twice that summer.

‘Momma Kyla’

“Every time I would have these episodes, Kyla left her house and her family in the middle of the night to calm me down. She even gave me her cell phone number. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through that summer,” she said.

Rivera said every time she had difficulties, she would “go into her office and say, ‘Momma Kyla, it’s therapy time, and I need some candy.’ I would talk through my situation with her and eat up her candy, and we would laugh at me being me.”

While Relaford’s role as “Momma Kyla” was experienced by hundreds of students over the years, it was her role as real-life Momma to two-year-old son, Grant, with the love of her life, husband Mike Gallagher, that made her shine. Photos of Grant and Gallagher populate her Facebook page.

Gifts Can Be Made to Support Her Life, Legacy

A path to ensure Grant’s future education has been laid down through the online site GoFundMe, where those inclined can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/5fgoozs

And for those who want to help ensure educational opportunities for future EOP students, the Kyla J. Relaford Memorial Scholarship can be accessed at alumni.plattsburgh.edu/honorkyla

Plans are underway to permanently dedicate a space within the new EOP offices being built within Macomb Residence Hall. A dedication ceremony will take place next fall.

A Voice for the Students

Bryan Hartman, vice president of student affairs, under whom Relaford worked as EOP director, said “Kyla will be sorely missed by all who knew her, especially the students that she so fiercely advocated for.

’“She was the voice for students that hadn’t developed their own voice prior to coming to campus,” Hartman said. “Kyla worked with colleagues throughout the college to help students develop their own voices for which our college benefits every day. We are committed to keeping Kyla’s legacy alive.”

For Rivera, that’s a given.

“She comforted me, gave me peace. I’ll miss her hugs the most. I was half her size, and I would wrap my arms around her, and it was the most comforting feeling on Earth, like a cloud. She embraced me, with her fluffiness, and I was engulfed in her safeness. Her impact on my life reminds me that I am a strong woman, that I overcame so much and that perseverance is going to take me where I want to go,” Rivera said. “She reminds me that relying on God and my faith is what I need in times of crisis and to let that strength silence my fears. Kyla Relaford has been my guiding light, and she is now my guardian angel.”