After 10 family moves, Valerie Thomas has planted roots and lives to explore the magic of the Magic City, becoming one of the “most Birmingham” citizens here. She runs The VAL Group, a concierge service and the city’s unofficial welcoming committee. While clients like UAB and Children’s of Alabama contract her to introduce potential residents to the best that Birmingham has to offer, even locals will admit to learning new things about the city from her. She lives local in every way possible, from shopping small businesses to fundraising, advising and advocating for community organizations like the Maranathan Academy, Sidewalk Film Festival, the Alys Stephens Center, the Levite Jewish Community Center, Vulcan Park & Museum, Red Mountain Theatre Company, Birmingham Botanical Gardens and many more. Valerie Thomas is truly a FACE of Birmingham, and we’re excited to get to know her better
As a non-native, you have been described as “the most Birmingham woman ever.” What is it about this city that made you decide to stay and immerse yourself so fully in its culture?
When my husband, Dr. Steven Thomas, returned home to San Antonio after a recruiting visit to UAB Hospital for the Burn Center Director position, he was interested in scheduling a second interview. My reaction was, “Whoa! You do remember Bull Connor and the dogs?!” That was the Birmingham history I was most familiar with. As a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, he was so excited for the opportunity to be the Burn Center Director at UAB that I agreed to the visit and ultimately, the move. I was very skeptical of how welcoming the community would be to us, especially as a mixed-race family, so I decided not to look for a new work opportunity or to buy a house. In about 18 months, I had a completely different opinion of the city. Southern charm, locally sourced shopping experiences, farm-fresh food, meeting local farmers, chef-run restaurants, live music and theater, parks — and, it was all close by!
Once I experienced the city myself, I found it inspiring that Birmingham had come so far from such a dark and dangerous history. I’ve lived in cities that were very closed to newcomers, but here, I found a community that is open to my input and ideas. Birmingham is vibrant, fun and going in the right direction. It’s not perfect, but I see and believe in the potential, and I feel I can contribute to its continued progress. Who wouldn’t want to live in a community where you can see and affect change!
Now, even after your husband’s retirement, you continue to work with UAB and Children’s of Alabama to smoothly transition their recruits to the university and to the city. Tell us more about how The VAL Group helps candidates and their families become active and happy members of their new communities.
Whether it’s meeting for coffee, going to their first community event or inviting them to the Alys Stephens Center, we do it! The largest component of The VAL Group service is sharing an individualized itinerary with potential future residents during their first and second recruiting visits. Unfortunately, a lot of our national news makes it seem like we may not be welcoming to everybody, even though we are! I share my own preconceptions of the city and the fact that, even though we could have chosen to live anywhere after my husband’s retirement from UAB, we are here to stay.
I personally live a very Birmingham-centered life, so I take my new residents with me, until they figure out their Birmingham community. I love new friends, and some of them identify as “Friends of Valerie,” which makes me happy!
The VAL Group gives virtual and personal tours to candidates who are potential Birmingham residents. How do those work?
In addition to walking the candidate through a map of where everything is in our city that’s important to them, we make sure they see it. For example, we had a candidate with a young child with special needs whom we took on a tour of UCP, where they met the teachers and aids who would take care of their child. That couple actually paid the reservation fee before they left. We’ve had a young Muslim physician whose parents would relocate with him — their life was centered around the mosque, while he wanted an urban lifestyle. During his visit, we scheduled a mosque visit with the Imam and a tour of the Parkside area of Birmingham. We spend time touring multiple public and private schools, outdoor spaces, very specific nooks relevant to each candidate and their spouse or partner. We don’t want them to have to guess what their community might look like. When they need to look at houses, we refer realtors based on personality and suburban interests. Every city has beautiful homes and neighborhoods, but we make sure that any doubts about services, culture or minority or diverse communities is done away with.
Describe a quintessential “Birmingham” day. Where do you go, what do you eat, what do you see?
A typical day starts with cup of tea brewed with Piper & Leaf’s Front Porch Special loose tea, followed by green juice from either Sprout & Pour or Farm Bowl. I either walk to True40, drive to Core Suspend at the Levite Jewish Community Center or go upstairs to the exercise space in The Pizitz.
My daily routine includes many Birmingham or regional products: daily beauty regimen using soaps, creams and lotions from Southern Natural, Botaniko, Sanctuary Farms or Left Hand Soap — I keep a variety. I usually wear outfits from Bearden Design or ISHI? LUXE, paired with Zkano socks, my glasses from iiis optical shop and Sanders Jewelry.
After delivering locally curated welcome packages to guests’ hotels, I may have a board or committee meeting, then lunch at The Essential before walking my French mastiff, Matlock, to Kelly Ingram Park and back to Advent Episcopal School while the students are being dismissed — they love him!
I stop at The Louis Bar for my favorite cocktail from Chuy, before dinner at one of my favorite spots: somewhere in the Pizitz Food Hall (The Standard or Busy Corner Cheese) or within walking distance at either Bistro 218, EastWest, Cafe Dupont or Roots & Revelry!
What are some of the ways the city actively feeds, or gives, to you?
Living in a downtown community, I can walk almost everywhere that I want to go. I walk to work, exercise, eateries, entertainment — this is the first city where I have the opportunity to live downtown versus the suburbs. The energy from just walking out the door and down the street, seeing people, saying good morning, good afternoon … it makes you feel really alive and that all is right with the world!
What is your best piece of advice?
When I was the major gift officer at Lehigh Valley Hospital, the chief of geriatric medicine told me: People need to understand that aging begins at birth, and we have to focus on the basics of aging way before we become seniors. That resonated with me, and I started getting up at 5:30 a.m. with Steve. He headed to the hospital, and I headed to the gym, and I have continued to focus on not being frail. My goal is to be a spry grandmother. I exercise, eat healthy and try to watch my alcohol consumption. But, the key is to keep moving! Don’t stop, because it’s painful and hard to get going again!
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
See more inspiring Birmingham FACES here!