By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
Like many outsiders new to Birmingham, Valerie Collins Thomas was skeptical of The Magic City.
“I wasn’t sure about Birmingham at first,” she said. “I wondered how I would be received as a Black wife to a white doctor in a city with so much history of racial tension.”
And like many outsiders, Thomas fell in love with the city.
“I felt warmly received by my neighbors and community,” she said. “My husband, [Stephen Thomas, M.D., is both a doctor and] solider, and moving to Birmingham was our 10th move.
“Out of all the places we’ve lived, this is the first city where I know where almost everything I eat or buy comes from. I know the farmer. I know the person who makes the candles I buy. … I place a tremendous value on the ability to do that, and I am proud of Birmingham’s authenticity.”
Now as an “adopted Birminghamian,” Thomas shares her love for The Magic City through her concierge company, The VAL Group, which was founded in 2017. She currently serves as the division lead for international hospitality housing with The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022) and is gearing up for more than 3,000 athletes that will be in town for the Games, which will take place from July 7 through July 17.
“We have 106 countries participating in [TWG 2022],” she said. “You think, ‘OK, where are they going to stay? How are they going to get around and familiarize themselves with the city for the week and a half that they will be here?’… That’s where I come in.”
Thomas knows the city inside and out through her work with clients like the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Children’s of Alabama, which contract her to introduce potential residents to the best that Birmingham has to offer. She shops small businesses and does fundraising, in addition to advising and advocating for community organizations and groups, such as the Sidewalk Film Festival, the Alys Stephens Center, the Levite Jewish Community Center, Vulcan Park and Museum, the Red Mountain Theatre Company, and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens—in other words, some of the best the city has to offer.
The VAL Group
Once arriving in The Magic City, Thomas was ready to “leave her footprint,” and that’s how the idea for The Val Group was born.
“After so many moves during [my husband’s] medical and military career, as well as my career, I noticed that our first step in getting to know a city was typically facilitated by a real estate agent,” she said. “I didn’t want to just buy a house, though. I wanted to invest myself in my community. I wanted to know which restaurants were locally owned, what cultural events were happening around me, and how I could support local businesses.”
Along with her partner Mary Yancy, who serves as an executive visitor specialist, Thomas and The VAL Group offer options like the City Visit Service, the Transition Service, and a Spouse Mentoring Program.
“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,” she added. “For example, we had a couple with a young child with special needs, so we took a tour of United Cerebral Palsy of Alabama, where they met the teachers and aides who would take care of their child. That couple actually paid the reservation fee before they left.”
Another example is a Muslim physician whose parents would be relocating with him. Their lives were centered around the mosque, and 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,” Thomas said.
Depending on the client, “We spend time touring multiple public and private schools, outdoor spaces, very specific nooks relevant to each candidate and their spouse or partner,” she added.
Thomas was born and raised in Chesapeake, Virginia. “My parents and grandparents are both from [Virginia],” she said. “My father was a Southern Baptist minister, and my mother worked for a large corporation.”
Thomas attended George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, and graduated in 1976.
“I was actively involved in high school,” she said. “I really enjoyed dancing. … I actually became the school’s first African American majorette.”
She then went to the University of Richmond, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in economics and psychology and was a member of the cheerleading and majorette squads.
“My freshman year was very active because I was constantly ripping back and forth changing for cheer or changing for majorette, all while balancing classes and different college things,” Thomas recalled. “The University of Richmond was a predominantly white institution, so oftentimes I would find myself being one of few Blacks involved in sports or sometimes even classes.”
Thomas graduated from college in 1980 and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where worked as systems engineer for IBM until 1987.
“Fun fact: I was an Atlanta Falcons cheerleader for two seasons when I first got to Atlanta. I worked there and at my job at IBM. I was the definition of work and play, … but also still work.”
Thomas, her husband, Steve, and their children—daughter, Megan, 37, and son Morgan, 31—have lived throughout the U.S.: Texas, where she worked for the United Way of San Antonio and the National Trauma Institute; Pennsylvania, where she worked with the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley; and North Carolina, where she worked at a domestic violence center.
“Of course, with all the different positions, that meant we had to relocate,” she said.
Of all her stops, Birmingham has been the favorite. In 2010, her husband joined the faculty of UAB’s Department of Surgery Division of Trauma, Burns, and Surgical Critical Care, and he currently serves as Director of the UAB Burn Center.
“We were living in San Antonio at the time, and 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,” said Thomas.
After living in Birmingham for more than a year, Thomas was in love with the city.
“In about 18 months, I had a completely different opinion of the city,” she said. “The Southern charm is what really got me, plus the locally sourced shopping experiences, farm-fresh food, meeting local farmers, chef-run restaurants, live music and theater, the parks, … everything.
“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.
“Steve and I purchased a home in Redmont Park and recently relocated downtown. It was important to me to make sure that our purchases and lifestyle benefitted the city of Birmingham. … I advocate for people to move their families to Birmingham, and I walk the walk. We don’t live way out in the suburbs. We live in the city, walk everywhere, enjoy the cultural activities, the venues, and the people.”
The VAL Group is located at The Pizitz, 120 19th Street N., Suite 806, Birmingham, AL 35203. For more information, visit thevalgroup.org.