BY JE’DON HOLLOWAY-TALLEY
Special to the Birmingham Times
“You Had Me at Hello’’ highlights married couples and the love that binds them. If you would like to be considered for a future “Hello’’ column, or know someone, please send nominations to Barnett Wright email@example.com. Include the couple’s name, contact number(s) and what makes their love story unique.
LEONARD AND ASHLEI STEPHENS
Married: August 6, 2016
Met: August 1996, Ashlei and Leonard were in the same kindergarten class at Avondale Elementary. However, in August 2002, they met again at Huffman Middle School in P.E. class and realized they knew each other from kindergarten.
“Bianca Lewis, [a classmate] told me that Ashlei had a crush on me and that’s how it started,” Leonard said. “I was a little nervous to talk to her, I thought she was cute.”
“…we ended up calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend,” Ashlei recalled. “…but he left the school after [6th grade] and finished middle and high school [at Daniel Payne Middle School and Hueytown High School]. It’s like we met up again every five years. In 2009, at the end of my senior year [at Huffman High School] I was on Facebook and he came up in my [friend suggestions] and I said ‘oh, I remember him, that’s Leonard Stephens from Huffman Middle School’, and I DM’d [direct messaged] him and we chatted back and forth a little bit, exchanged numbers and started having mostly text conversations.”
Leonard said the conversations went from text messages to phone conversations and “that’s when I asked her to come to my graduation.”
First date: May 2009, after Ashlei accepted the invitation to watch him cross the stage.
“That was the first time we saw each other since the sixth grade, and the first time she met my mom’s family… I asked my mother if she could come with us to dinner, and she went with us to [now closed] Top Of The River restaurant in Hoover,” Leonard said.
“I remember it being a good date, I remember being so nervous. He was sitting next to me and he was so cute. We had a good time, he was putting his arm around me. We talked, we laughed, and he was a gentleman. When he drove me back to my car downtown [at the Boutwell Auditorium], my car wouldn’t crank, and he made sure I was good. I don’t know what he did to make it crank up but he got it to start, and I was thinking he was like a ‘manly man,’” she laughed. “How he treated me that day, holding my hand, opening up my door, he wouldn’t leave me at my car until he got it started, I could tell he was somebody I could feel safe with.”
The turn: For Leonard, it was the realization of their kismet timing. “It’s something about the five-year thing, every five years we would run into each other and that didn’t seem like a coincidence to me, and that’s what made our relationship so intriguing and something we wanted to dive into.,” Leonard said.
“…and how we coincidentally ended up going to the same college [Jacksonville State University],” Ashlei added, “we didn’t plan that.” The college admissions/acceptance period had already passed by the time the two met back up.
For Ashlei, it was the summer of 2009. “We had made it official on July 27, and from there we’ve been serious ever since.,” she said. “We pretty much helped each other navigate freshmen year, it was both of our first times being out on our own and having to take care of ourselves. We helped each other navigate finances, and transportation and held each other accountable for staying on track with our goals.”
A mile marker for Leonard was in 2011 after he had surgery on his ACL. “My heart actually stopped twice and they had to bring me back [to life] and when I woke up I remember seeing Ashlei sitting at the edge of the bed with my mother and grandfather. [Ashlei] was working at Publix at the time, and she slept next to me on the couch in her Publix uniform every night. That’s when I knew she had my back,” Leonard said.
The proposal: Summer 2015, at their home in Roebuck. “We were at home and Ashlei’s best friend, Shvonne, was there and I told her that I was going to propose to Ashlei … and when Ashlei walked off for a moment I got down on one knee and when she came back she walked right past me, and I just stayed there [on bended knee] with the ring in my hand looking crazy,” Leonard laughed. “So Shvonne was like ‘Ashlei, girl, look, look!’ and when [Ashlei] looked at me we all started laughing, and [Ashlei] was like what is going on, and I said ‘girl, will you marry me?’ and she said ‘yes’.
“I was excited, and I was actually sad that I didn’t see him on his knee, so I kinda didn’t get the full experience of [getting proposed to], but I was excited that it happened, and were engaged,” Ashlei said.
The wedding: In Bessemer, at the Bessemer Civic Center, officiated by Leonard’s best friend’s father, Pastor Donald Square Sr. of I Care Christian Ministries in Birmingham. Their colors were baby pink and navy blue.
Most memorable for the bride was a surprise moment during their vow exchange. “We didn’t agree to write our own vows, so when he surprised me with the beautiful poem during our nuptials, I thought it was so sweet,” Ashlei said. “It was
about us, our relationship, our ups and downs, and how we grew together and the poem summed us up perfectly. I cried, and I felt so overwhelmed with love.”
Most memorable for the groom was their entrance at their wedding reception.
“When we walked into our reception and they reintroduced us as husband and wife [the disk jockey was playing] ‘I Got The Key’s, by Jay Z, featuring Dj Khalid, and we danced all the way to the stage, and that was weird because neither one of us had ever danced in front of such a large crowd,” Leonard said. “We had fun doing it, and we actually didn’t have any nerves because we felt like we were alone in that moment together.”
They honeymooned in Panama City, Florida. “We had a condo for a week, and we enjoyed the peace and quiet alone because it was rare with having a [then] 4-year-old son back home,” Leonard said.
Words of wisdom: “Know how to do life together. Sometimes life gets hard, and knowing how to lean on each other and work as a team instead of letting life split you apart is important,” Ashlei said. “When things get rough, you have to attack it together because you’re a team; work it together instead of separately.”
“It’s important for couples to use emotional intelligence. Understand that you should grow with your partner, it should be fresh and exciting. Understand that [your partners’] likes and dislikes will change, and you have to learn how to evolve with them and not against them.
Happily ever after: The Stephens have three children, sons Lathen, 11, and Lelan Jay, 4, and daughter, Alaya, 5.
Ashlei, 31, is an East Birmingham native, and Huffman High School grad. She attended Jacksonville (AL) State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human resource management. Ashlei is the administrative assistant at their family-owned gym, Step by Step Sports Training, in Birmingham’s Crestwood area, and serves as the Director for their non-profit organization, the Step by Step Foundation.
Leonard, 32, is a Pratt City native, a Hueytown High School grad, and attended Jacksonville State University, where he studied kinesiology and played on their football, and is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at the same institute. Leonard is the owner/founder of Step by Step Sports Training and their non-profit, Step by Step Foundation in Birmingham’s Crestwood area.