Benji Valentina started her career as a custom home builder and general contractor, something she did for five years before venturing into the world of commercial real estate. While developing her very first project – Warehouse 9013 Salon Suites/Hair Extensions/Men’s Hair Replacements – Benji obtained her cosmetology license in order to help operate her business more effectively. Initially, the greatest obstacle Benji faced was the financial backing that is required to fund the startup of a small business. “A lot of sacrificing, determination, and perseverance allowed me to push through the difficult times,” Benji says. She had to step outside of her faith to pursue her passion, and while it took three years to finish the development of her first commercial project, she encourages other inspiring entrepreneurs and business owners to follow their passion. When asked what it is she loves most about her work, Benji explains, “I position myself to help others in so many ways by offering hair extensions, wigs, and men’s hair replacements to clients who suffer from hair loss – I did not realize how many men and women suffered from this condition, whether it be from fine hair, alopecia, chemotherapy, thyroid problems, genetics, stress, or just poor diets. Men and women are in tears when they reveal their true selves to me during our consultations. As a home builder, it brought me great pleasure to bring beauty to spaces where others couldn’t see beauty…when I’m faced with those suffering hair loss who feel they have lost their beauty, it becomes natural to me to help reveal it back to them.” Benji has partnered with The American Cancer Society, which gives her another opportunity to dedicate her services and help those who suffer from hair loss. She credits her success to her faith in God and the support she has received from family, friends, and various media outlets. Benji is the proud mother of daughter Payton Kennedy Thomas.
When you meet Jason Watson, you will quickly notice his eye for style in the fashion forward details of his wardrobe. Sporting designer belts and sneakers, his sharp outward appearance is just one of the fabulous things we love about him but his warmth and heart for others makes you understand why so many people adore him, both personally and professionally. Jason is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in treating adult trauma. Originally from Austin, Texas, Jason moved to Montgomery in 2002. He attended Auburn University Montgomery, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a Master of Science in justice and public safety, and a Master of Education. Jason recently ventured into entrepreneurship by co-opening the counseling practice Fitzpatrick and Watson Counseling, LLC.
In addition to running his practice, Jason also teaches with the Family Guidance Center as an educator in the LIFT (Life Is Fun Together) program, which focuses on healthy relationships. His previous work in the field of addiction, as well as his own life experiences, gives him a unique set of skills to help all individuals who seek counseling. Jason says the support of his family and friends was the biggest influence in his decision to open his own practice. He credits them as his motivation to challenge himself. Jason shares that what he loves most about being a counselor is the trusting relationship between client and therapist, adding that being present with painful memories and working through the discomfort is very rewarding. Seeing clients grow from their trauma, and gain healthy skills to manage their emotions, is the most rewarding part of the job. Jason is married and has four dogs, and enjoys working out, jogging and reading.
Nick Mielke, the Executive Director of Montgomery Habitat for Humanity, finds joy in every aspect of his job. “It is hard not to love our mission- providing simple, decent, and affordable home ownership opportunities for lower-income families in Montgomery County. Seeing the smiles and tears whenever we do a home dedication and a family receives the keys to often their first home makes all of the hard work in-between worth every second.” He thanks Montgomery’s community for all their help in Habitat’s mission; without their contributions, the non-profit would be unable to aid those in need.
Nick’s “all-hands-on-deck” approach to his work would be nothing without the amazing team behind him, including the staff and board of directors. Nick is married to Laura and has four daughters: Harper, Lily, Wren, and Laura Kelly. They are active members of the Church of the Ascension Episcopal Church and enjoy contributing to mission work, including Footprints Ministry, an organization that assists those with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Units in Montgomery. When Nick has free time, he fills it with woodworking, home brewing, and podcasting.
After graduating from Auburn University Montgomery in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Rachel Stewart wasted no time before entering the financial world, immediately starting her career with Guardian Credit Union. She quickly worked her way up to assistant vice president of marketing, and has since been promoted to vice president of marketing. Rachel says that while initially fear of the unknown was one of the biggest challenges she faced, she has now come to embrace the unknown, both at work and in her personal life, as “it has actually helped me grow into a better version of myself.” She believes the best part of her job is that her day-to-day routine is never the same. She enjoys the community events that Guardian participates in and that there is “never a dull moment.”
Rachel credits her father, Mike Castanza, as both her biggest influence and fan. “He has taught me the value of hard work and commitment, having confidence in myself, and looking someone in the eye when speaking to them,” she explains. She believes the Montgomery community is made up of individuals who want to see their peers succeed, and says this has also contributed to her success. The most important part of Rachel’s life is her family life - she is married to husband Michael, and they have two daughters, Isabel and Annie. The Stewarts are members of Christchurch, and Rachel attends Women’s Discipleship at His Vessel Ministries in downtown Montgomery. She is also on the board of the East Family YMCA, a member of Bal Masque, and is involved in many of Guardian’s community events, including the Symetra Tour, FCS kickoff, and fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Rashad J. Provitt is a small business owner here in Montgomery of the T-shirt screen-printing shop, Provitt Prints, LLC. In addition to his day job, Rashad is also working to give back and mentor the city’s youth in the same way he was mentored and impacted by the Boys and Girls Club. “Growing up, the Boys and Girls Club impacted me in a major way. It gave me a safe place to go instead of being on the street corners. Mr. Leon Hall, the director, mentored me in my childhood. When I became an adult, I knew there were young men just like me who needed guidance,” Rashad explains. His desire to work with the community’s youth led to the formation of Choose One or Lose One (COLO), a nonprofit he founded in 2014 with the mission of mentoring, motivating, and encouraging Montgomery’s youth. COLO sponsors children in basketball camps, donates toys at Christmas to the underprivileged, and helps to feed the local homeless.
The organization recently was able to give away 700 backpacks filled with supplies to children throughout Montgomery. Rashad graduated from Alabama State University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He is constantly amazed at the level of support he receives from the community, stating “I know that they could go to any other company for business, however, they choose me. I’m truly indebted to Montgomery and the surrounding area for all their support.” Rashad’s favorite thing about Montgomery is its rich history in the Civil Rights Movement, in which his family played a part. He enjoys playing basketball and coaching kids’ basketball teams. Rashad says he has recently begun exploring other hobbies, including golf, bowling and fishing. He is engaged to Candice White, and together they have Nineaux, a boxer pup.
The accolades of Shakita Brooks Jones far exceed a word count in a local magazine. She is dynamic, brilliant and she impacts people everywhere she goes. Shakita graduated from Troy State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work before attaining a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alabama. She also holds a master’s degree in public administration, as well as a non-profit management certification from Auburn University Montgomery. Shakita is the founder of Central Alabama Alliance Resource & Advocacy Center, which offers community health education outreach and services. She recently joined Auburn University as an adjunct instructor in their social work department. As a social worker, she served low-income HIV/AIDS patients and hospice clients, an experience which led her to work for more humane state policies as a community organizer. Shakita’s specific areas of interest include understanding more about the root causes of poverty and the plight of the working poor, as well as exploring the increased rates of HIV and AIDS in Alabama.
In 2018, she joined Montgomery Build’s Kress on Dexter as the community engagement coordinator, and was instrumental in the success of the “Remembering Monroe Project,” an intergenerational community story-telling project. Shakita credits the knowledge that just two generations ago her own family was living in poverty as the biggest impact on her success. “Sacrifices made by my grandparents and parents have afforded me educational opportunities and a life that they could only imagine,” she explains. Shakita draws from her ancestral strength when working to build communities and influence young minds on the relevance of the past. She loves building relationships and witnessing transformations within communities, and says that working in the Montgomery community has taught her to be flexible and forgiving, noting that “the community teaches me how to teach them.” Shakita is married to Rahsaan, with whom she has a 14-year-old son, Noah.
Suzanne Healey Mathison has been a friendly face in the real estate world for almost 20 years, where she has helped people design their dream home in several great neighborhoods including Deer Creek, Wyndridge, Billingsly and Woodland Creek, where she has been since 2007. Her hard work and dedication to Lowder New Homes over the years paid off when she was recently promoted to Vice President of Sales. She highlights the team-work atmosphere at Lowder as one of the best parts of her job and understands the importance of creating a home her customers will love. “Juggling work and three kids always has its challenges. I had to learn how to balance many different things to be able to be successful at my job and as a mom.
My goal was not to fail or falter at either.” Suzanne is thankful for our city’s constant growth- she believes the community is geared toward development, aiding in her real estate realm. “My favorite thing about Montgomery would be the people who live here, and the small-town feel with the bigger-city perks.” Suzanne has three amazing children, Mat, Healey and John Thomas, and her family is expanding as she just said “YES” to fiancé Brian Smith when he asked for her hand in marriage. She is an involved member at Frazer Church and supports local ministries and nonprofits throughout Montgomery. Suzanne’s favorite things to do when she isn’t at work are watching her children play a variety of sports, cheering for the Georgia Dawgs and squeezing in a game of tennis when time allows.
After playing tennis competitively for most of his life, Yair Banuelos knew he wanted to continue into a tennis career. He graduated from Western New Mexico University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a minor in coaching, as well as a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. Yair decided on a coaching career as he wanted to help other players improve in every aspect of the game. He started out as the graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, where just two years later he was promoted to head coach, a position he held for four years. Yair left WNMU to become the head men and women’s tennis coach at Auburn University Montgomery. One of his goals is to build a stronger relationship between the city and AUM tennis, as Yair believes the team could offer a positive impact on the community and also benefit from its support. The AUM tennis team has participated in several community service events, including working with Dream Court tennis and the River Region Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Yair says his family has always been his foundation, both as a tennis player and as a coach. Yair shares a special bond with his brother, who he says has also been the biggest influence in his career. As kids, they practiced, competed, and traveled together playing tennis, and they are now both tennis coaches. Yair is married to Doris, who he credits with having an enormous amount of tolerance for marrying someone who eats, sleeps and talks tennis constantly. While Doris is the love of his life, we cannot fail to mention his other best friend, his rescue dog, Curly. Yair hoped to rename him #hashtag, but unlike most tennis matches, he didn’t win that one. Yair and Doris attend Holy Spirit Catholic Church and love cooking, the outdoors, concerts, traveling, live sporting events, and game nights with friends. If you would like to support AUM tennis or need private tennis lessons, give him a call… he’s a great coach!
Dr. Brian Richardson knew at an early age he was called to be a doctor. Visits with his grandfather, who suffered from prostate cancer, ignited a passion within him to want to help others. Brian completed his residency at Tulane Hospital in New Orleans and now serves as an Urologist and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Jackson Hospital and Clinics. Losing his mother to pancreatic cancer made him realize how often we all take our health for granted. His mission is to not only treat patients when they have a problem, but to promote healthy living so that some issues might be avoided. Brian loves the diversity of his field and that it includes the treatment of kidney stones, sexual dysfunction, and multiple cancers.
While a career in medicine comes with challenges and sacrifices, including many years of training and time away from family and friends, he loves delivering good news to patients and helping them understand what is going on with their body. Brian has grown to love Montgomery and actively promotes men’s health awareness through health talks for the city, news segments, magazine columns, and most recently, with the creation of an inaugural 5K Mustache Run. Brian and his wife Marcela have been busy renovating a historic home, and they just recently welcomed their first baby boy, Sebastian. Brian and his wife are active members of Landmark Church and when he has some free time, you might find him on the golf course or keeping guests entertained while singing karaoke.
Miles Smith loves a good challenge, and as general manager of Escapology he has the perfect outlet for finding one. He is in the business of changing perceptions and exceeding expectations. “The average person doesn’t know what an escape game is, or they think it’s for kids because it’s a game. I have to explain daily that it is a useful tool for businesses as well as a family-friendly venue for almost any age,” Miles says. Miles won’t tell you that one of his best traits is his humility, but one of the things we love most about him is his servant’s heart. He doesn’t measure success; he considers it a blessing that he is surrounded by so many people who love him and help keep him focused. He sees challenges, not obstacles, and says Theodore Roosevelt explained it well – “…there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”
The people of Montgomery are what Miles believes help to make the city amazing. He loves that Escapology is located downtown and feels that the entertainment it provides shows that the city is growing in a good direction. Miles is the Montgomery chapter president of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and is frequently involved in outdoor events. He loves to hunt, hike, kayak and fish when he has free time. Miles and his wife Celeste have two sons, Daltin and Braxtin, and a daughter, Lenna. They love the location of Montgomery, and that it allows them to be in between Auburn and Tuscaloosa, as well as just three hours away from both the beach and the mountains.