2017 Women of Distinction



Assemblymember Medina Honors Connie Ransom as 2017 Woman of the Year

Connie Ransom graduated from Reed College with a degree in Psychology and Claremont Graduate University for her Master of Fine Arts in Ceramic Sculpture. Connie has been invited to numerous exhibitions throughout the state to display her art. For ten years, she served as the Director of the Art Works Gallery which celebrated contemporary art and fine craft by presenting major exhibitions as well as art talks and art fairs. She is currently President of the Board of Directors of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, an organization she has been involved with for fifteen years. She is also active with Rise Up California, which advances voter education and civic engagement. Recently, Connie served as an organizer of the Women’s March in Riverside to advocate for inclusive and diverse communities. Connie and her husband Roger reside in Riverside where they continue to celebrate its special culture and history.

2017 Women of Distinction Honorees

Alma Medina

Alma Medina is a mother of three, business owner, and resident of Moreno Valley. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, she immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17. After her husband, Robert, was laid off of work, Alma's impressive home decorating skills were noticed by her neighbors and she began to decorate people's homes. Her passion became a source of income while Robert found a new job. She began her business in her garage where she would make floral arrangements, design valances for drapes and curtains. As requests for artwork grew, Alma and Robert started the Robert's Fine Arts and Framing business. They opened their first shop at the Maclin Open Air Market in Colton and opened a second shop at the Maclin Open Air markets in Chino. In 1994 they signed a lease to open a permanent location on Hemlock Avenue in Moreno Valley. With her strong work ethic, drive and determination, Alma helped turn her business from a garage into a large 3,500 square foot shop in Moreno Valley and another 1,500 shop in Chino.

Arlene Jackson

Arlene Jackson is currently a PR Representative for the Tuskegee Airmen, a member of CFC and the Perris Valley Women's Club. Aside from being a mother to two biological daughters, she was also a foster parent to 32 additional children from 1984 — 2009. Ms. Jackson’s passion for helping others led her to spend over $350,000 of her own money to start Restoring Hope Community Services. Restoring Hope Community Services is a faith based nonprofit organization established to provide housing for homeless veterans. She has conducted various fundraisers i.e., Golf Tournament, Pancake/Waffle Breakfast, Gospel Gala, and Silent Auctions to help meet the escalating financial needs. Most recently, she was recognized by “California Military Institute for her contribution in helping Veterans and the homeless through Restoring Hope.

Chani Beeman

Chani Beeman currently works at CSUSB as an Information Technology Consultant. Chani served as the Director of Diversity, Equity & Compliance for the Riverside Community College District. Ms. Beeman is also involved with the city of Riverside’s Community Police Review Commission, the Human Relations Commission, the Citizen’s Advisory Committee to the Chief of Police, the Mayor’s Multi Cultural Council, the Western Inland Coalition Against Hate. Over the years, Ms. Beeman has been committed to THE GROUP, the Latino Network, the NAACP and the founding of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability (RCPA). Chani currently serves as the Vice President for the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters – Riverside, and as the Chairwoman for the Downtown Area Neighborhood Alliance.

Connie Edwards

Connie Edwards currently serves as a LCAP Wellness Liaison for the Moreno Valley Unified School District. As a Liasion, Connie has helped over 5000 families with much needed resources and services. She also brought together the Healthy Start Program at Loma Alta Elementary. The State of California Healthy Start awarded Loma Alta Healthy Start Family and Community Center as a model for school based family centers. She also organized a parent group called “Parents on the Move” to ensure parents become self-sufficient and active leaders. Connie developed a uniform fund, created a food bank, organized health initiatives like Breast Cancer Awareness Day, Healthy Eating Campaigns and Environmental Health programs. She also coordinated social initiatives such as Anti-Bullying Campaigns, connected families with holiday meals and donations. Her passion to help others is evident in the many relationships she has developed, nurtured, and fostered along the way.

Dr. Danielle Wheeler

Dr. Danielle Wheeler is currently the Executive Director of the March Joint Powers Authority. Danielle spear heads economic development efforts to achieve the organization’s mission of “Bringing Good Jobs to Riverside County.” She is currently managing annual budgets totaling $9.2M for various entities, including March Joint Powers Authority, the Successor Agency, Green Acres Enterprise Fund, March Inland Port Airport Authority, and March Joint Powers Utility Authority. Danielle is originally from Northern Virginia and has lived in California for the past 17 years. Prior to the March JPA, Danielle worked in the telecommunications industry and served five years in the United States Marine Corps.

Darlene Trujillo Elliot

Darlene Trujillo Elliot is currently a Riverside Public Utilities Administrative Analyst, Cofounder of Spanish Town Heritage Foundation, and President of Riverside Latino Network. In 2012, she cofounded a foundation called Spanish Town Heritage, with the mission to champion Hispanic/Latino legacy by sharing the stories of the Inland Empire’s first settlers. In March of 2015 she was selected as Latino Network’s Celebración de la Mujer, this recognition given to outstanding women who have demonstrated a spirit of commitment to their communities. In November of 2015, she was awarded the Greater Riverside Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Josie Lozano Memorial Award for community service and political activism, and, in 2016, received the Hispanic Lifestyle Award for Latina of Influence. In January of 2016, she was appointed by the Governor’s office to serve on the State Board of Podiatric Medical Board (BPM) and in December 2016, was voted as Secretary for the BPM.

Donna Doty Michalka

Donna Doty Michalka is a native of Riverside and graduated UCR with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management from the University of Redlands. She was a Community Relations Manager at Parkview Community Hospital until her retirement in 2016. She was the Director of Operations for the Riverside Orange Blossom Festival 1999 and 2000. Donna participated with the boards of Riverside Public Library Foundation, Community Connect, Riverside Area Rape Crisis Center, MFI Recovery Center, and Keep Riverside Clean and Beautiful; and as a committee member for Project KIND (Kids in Need of Doctors); the Law Enforcement Appreciation Committee; the Riverside Educational Enrichment Foundation (REEF). She has been a member of their 4th of July Celebration committee for 7 years, helping to raise funds to re-green and maintain the beautiful cemetery. Donna is the proud recipient of the 2014 YWCA “Women of Achievement” Award, the Lady Bird Johnson Award from Keep Riverside Clean and Beautiful, and was a finalist for the National Marketing Executive of the Year for credit unions.

Eleanor Kalnin

Eleanor Kalnin currently specializes in employment-based visa petitions for international scholars and professionals. Her efforts help demystify the convoluted immigration system, easing the process for the best and brightest international researchers to migrate to the United States. In 2010, Ms. Kalnin began working at the Immigration Law Offices of Hadley Bajramovic PC, where she serves as a Paralegal and Operations Manager. She is an assistant board member of the Inland Counties Association for Paralegals; a member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators; and Riverside’s Pick Group of Young Professionals. In 2013 & 2014, Ms. Kalnin organized the “LEAD” project - a major event attended by 200-300 deaf immigrants. The LEAD event connected this unique community to deaf-friendly resources in the Inland Empire, including health and financial services. Ms. Kalnin emceed this year’s Riverside Sister City Women’s March. In addition to assisting planning efforts, she delivered the national Womn’s March mission speech to a crowd of 4000 – 5000 attendees the day of the march.

Gail Egenes

Gail Egenes dedicated her 15-year career with Rivers & Lands Conservancy to open space conservation in inland Southern California. Under Gail’s leadership, the Rivers and Lands Conservancy grew from a single to six employees strong, with a conservation portfolio of 50 properties encompassing over 2,400 acres. Ms. Egenes also served on Keep Riverside Clean & Beautiful and the California Council of Land Trusts. Gail directed RLC’s efforts as part of the Totally Mt. Rubidoux partnership, to ensure Mt. Rubidoux Peak, a community open space landmark, was preserved in conditions known and appreciated by citizens of Riverside and the surrounding region. Gail passed away on February 27th, but her work and tireless effort positioned RLC to continue to be a leading force in land conservation in southern California.

“Open space helps me remember that I’m connected to something much bigger than myself” – Gail Egenes

Dr. Grace Williams

Dr. Grace Williams is the Economic & Community Development Manager for the March Joint Powers Authority where she leads the strategic planning and development efforts behind the Manufacturing Aerospace Research & Science (MARS) initiative at March. Grace strategically formed local, regional and federal alliances to support the development and funding of the project which is slated for construction this year. Grace also supports urban planning activities at March by managing complex entitlement projects for industrial, commercial and airport users while using her extensive technical skills to streamline the issuance of construction and regulatory permits. With over fifteen years of experience in the fields of environmental and urban planning, Grace’s passion for sustainable communities grew during her social justice work with World Vision, Servant Partners and the Union Rescue Mission where she volunteered with homeless families and mentored at-risk youth and children in South Central Los Angeles for seven years.

Jessica Oakes

Jessica Oakes is currently a Marriage and Family Therapist at Tahquitz High school in Hemet, CA. She put together a mental health fair that had over 250 people in attendance and was the first event of this nature to ever be held in the district. Ms. Oakes focuses on connecting with and supporting adolescents, especially those most at-risk and those with disabilities. With her monthly mental health events, Ms. Oakes has provided assistance to over 350 students and families at Tahquitz High School. Partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Victor Community Support Services (VCSS), Ms. Oakes has been instrumental in integrating mental health at the school in a way that had not been previously done. Ms. Oakes also volunteers her time at Feeding America Riverside/San Bernardino and was a sponsor for their Ladles of Love event in 2016.

Linda Sherman is the owner of Cellar Book Doors in Riverside, CA. She felt that Riverside needed an independent bookstore and a place for the community to gather in the love of books. She is the daughter of Arnold Sherman, a first generation American whose parents emigrated from Russia to escape the persecution of Jews, and Estelle (Mendoza) Sherman, also a first generation American whose parents emigrated from Mexico. With a desire to empower students through the command of a written word, Mrs. Sherman taught part-time for four years at Cal State San Bernardino, San Bernardino Valley College, UCR, and Crafton Hills College until she was hired full-time at Riverside Community College in 1984. Mrs. Sherman started the Puente Project and Muse, the literary magazine during her time at RCC. Her grandparents’ immigration depicts their struggles, strengths and hope that gave her the courage to embark on this new journey.

Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer is a writer and educator. Her stories and essays have been published widely, and her first novel will be published in 2018. She teaches English at Norco College. Liz also volunteers her time at her daughters' school and in mentoring young writers. Liz was one of the organizers of the Women's March on Riverside in January. Originally from Canada, Liz lives with her partner and three daughters in Riverside.

Marcela Ramirez

Marcela Ramirez is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside in the Higher Education Administration and Policy program through the Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include: multicultural affairs, cultural centers and student diversity. Ms. Ramirez was appointed by the Board of Regents of the University of California to serve a two year term as the 42nd Student Regent. One of her proudest endeavors was serving as the Founding Director for the Middle Eastern Student Center at the University of California, Riverside. She also worked in diversity initiatives for the Dean of Students office at UCR. Ms. Ramirez’s experience in student affairs includes cultural centers, student activities, international education, and career advising. Previously she worked for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, has studied in France and lived in Costa Rica.

Maribel Mattox

Maribel Mattox is the Chief Academic Officer for Moreno Valley Unified School District with almost 30 years of experience. Mrs. Mattox most recently served as Director of Secondary Education since 2013. Mrs. Mattox was a bilingual classroom teacher at several school districts from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Since then, she has burnished her administrative credentials, serving as a coordinator for various district programs, and as assistant principal and principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. She was principal at Moreno Valley High School from 2005 – 2012.

Nancy Melendez

Nancy Melendez hails from Riverside, California with deep roots in her community. Her family ties (Baca/Trujillo) stem from the original 10 families who founded La Placita de los Trujillos and Agua Mansa in the 1840’s, before California was part of the United States. Nancy, and her cousins Darlene and Suzanne, created the Riverside Tamale Festival and founded the Spanish Town Heritage Foundation with the mission of saving the family Adobe (The Trujillo Adobe) in Riverside and recreating La Placita de los Trujillos to share the stories of the first settlers in the Inland Empire. She is currently serving as President of Spanish Town Heritage Foundation, Interim California Director of the Old Spanish Trail Association, has been recognized with the Dr. Carlos Cortes Championing Diversity award, the Riverside Human Relations Community Hero award, and serves on many boards and commissions striving to make her community a better place for all to live, work, and play.

Rosa Elena Sahagún

Rosa Elena Sahagún began practicing law in 2002. In 2006, she established The Law Offices of Rosa Elena Sahagún where her areas of practice include criminal defense, immigration, family law and civil litigation. Ms. Sahagún regularly hosts free workshops for the community on topics ranging from citizenship to fraud prevention. Ms. Sahagún appears regularly on CNN En Español as a legal analyst and is a Professor of Law at CDTA. Ms. Sahagun is also a community activist. She champions many causes including civic engagement, immigrant rights and the protection of small businesses. Events Ms. Sahagún has organized, within the 61st district, have obtained national media attention. Her involvement in community organizing remains a focal point of her ongoing commitment to social justice. Ms. Sahagún is also is very active on social media and has a following of over 80,000 on Facebook.

Tamica Smith Jones

Tamica Smith Jones is currently UC Riverside’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. With the student-athlete experience as one of her primary focuses, Smith Jones has already overseen a renovation and rebranding of the Highlanders home basketball and volleyball arena, and begun the process for the creation of The Bears’ Den—a state-of-the-art locker room facility which will include team spaces, a study lounge, and a re-fueling station among other amenities, to assist UC Riverside’s student-athletes in their pursuit of success on the fields of play and in the classroom. In May of 2016, Smith Jones was appointed to the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Sport Committee which, among other things, determines the host institutions and the site of the championship(s) in collaboration with the Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee, and selects, seeds and brackets the NCAA Championship.

Tanya Price

Tanya Price is currently employed with Altura Credit Union. Working in the Credit Union industry for many years has afforded her many opportunities to follow her heart and passion for service. This has allowed Ms. Price to be involved with the Cancer Society, Animal Shelters, Salvation Army; as well as being able to serve our Military not only on the base but also as the Chair of the Moreno Valley Military Affairs Committee. Ms. Price was born and raised on the east coast. She made her home after moving around for several years in California with her family. She is a huge animal lover, which has led her to her current loves – two Great Danes and a Chihuahua.

Tomma Velez

Tomma Velez is a mother and social justice advocate living in the city of Riverside. After spending several years as a high school Spanish teacher, she pursued a management career in the spa industry. Having successfully managed several spa operations, Ms. Velez took on the immense task of spa director. She designed and created properties, such as The Spa at Hotel Healdsburg, in both Sonoma and Napa wine regions. The highlight of her life did not happen until the age of 35 when she became pregnant with her daughter Quinn. In addition to her current job as a substitute teacher, she spends much of her time volunteering with the Science Olympiad and PTA Reflections projects. She hopes to better her community through her work with neighborhood schools and local social justice movements.

Valerie Pellum Titus

Valerie Pellum Titus has been a school and college counselor for the past 35 years for the Riverside Unified School District. She served as a counselor for 27 years at Poly High School. Every year, she works on a counseling caseload of 500+ individuals. Ms. Pellum Titus is the founder of College Shirt Day, where students will wear college shirts on a designated day of the week to help bring awareness about college education. This phenomenal act was adopted by neighboring districts, counties and quickly spread across California. At her present site, Poly High School, college shirts are specifically worn each Wednesday in the month of October and November to recognized and promote the CSU and UC application window. She is also the co-author of the book, Snapshots. Mrs. Pellum Titus has housed, clothed, and fed homeless youth. She also purchased graduation announcements and attire for a senior boy from a low-income family as a reward for turning his grades around and becoming eligible for graduation.

Violeta Aguilar-Wyrick

Violeta Aguilar-Wyrick currently serves as the Field and Health & Safety Coordinator for the Service Employees International Union Local 121 RN, representing nurses throughout Southern California. She was part of the Youth Steering Committee which helped organize the first Planned Parenthood Young Women’s Health Conference in San Bernardino. After graduating from college in 2008, she began working for the Service Employees International Union-United Health Care Workers West. She began working for Senator Roth as a Field Representative covering the cities of Riverside and Jurupa Valley. She was also in charge of education, healthcare, human services, and labor policy as well as Latino issues. In 2015, she was selected to be part of the inaugural class of the University of California Riverside Masters in Public Policy. She was selected as a Manny Rice Scholar, and she is expected to graduate in the spring of 2017 with an emphasis in Healthcare policy.

Yuridia Nava

Yuridia Nava is a board member for the state counseling association the California Association of School Counselors (CASC). Through CASC, Ms. Nava helps to promote the counseling profession and plan an annual state conference for school counselors in California. She was selected as the 2015 California Counselor of the Year by CASC and was named one of the top five counselors in the country by the American School Counselors Association in 2016. She has worked in education for fourteen years since graduating from Fountain High School in 2003. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Human Development from CSU San Bernardino.