What makes a location “home?” For some, it means a place where they were born and raised; a place they might leave for a time but is always in their heart and on their mind. For others, home is a feeling and a revelation and about finding a way to make their mark. For these three young people, Montgomery is home in every sense, and they’re excited about making a life and a difference here.
RACHEL GANDY/Executive Assistant / Public Information Officer, Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs
From the age of 14, Rachel Gandy thought she had her future mapped out when she scored an internship in her hometown of Tuskegee’s Human Resources Department. She fell in love with the work and decided that would be her career one day.
She attended Montgomery Academy, commuting to classes each day. She worked as a page in the Alabama State Legislature. She competed in and won Alabama’s Junior Miss pageant, earning money for college. When she scouted schools, she says she fell in love with the University of North Alabama. It was just far enough from home to let her spread her wings, among people who didn’t know her, but close enough to keep ties with family. She jumped in with both feet, participating in SGA, was selected for the homecoming court and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She majored in Human Resources with a minor in Spanish. Her plan was going perfectly.
Until graduation. Unable to find a job in her chosen field, she returned home to Tuskegee and began working as a full-time nanny. For someone as driven and goal-oriented as Gandy, it was a shock. For maybe the first time, she wasn’t sure about her future. But an unexpected door was opened. In August 2014 she secured a position as an assistant to Gov. Robert Bentley. “I felt it was an honor and a privilege to work in the Governor’s office,” she said. “It was a special time, although unfortunately overcast by dark clouds. I’m not necessarily interested in ‘politics’ per se. I saw a lot of the ugly side of politics. But I worked with some great people who gave me a chance and an opportunity. Sometimes that’s all young people need.”
She became involved with Leadership Montgomery and EMERGE, both groups that she says helped her meet people in a variety of careers, from diverse backgrounds, people she might not otherwise have known. She is involved in community speaking, and is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Human Resources at Troy University Montgomery.
In 2016, Gov. Bentley formed the Office on Minority Affairs, and Gandy was selected as one of three staff for the new office. “Our goal is to work for the inclusion of minorities and women and get information directly to the Governor about various issues impacting these groups – employment, economic, social issues,” Gandy said. “I’m interested in governmental relations – I’d really like to work to help make good policies for people in rural communities and make sure their voices are heard.”
She said she feels Montgomery is where she is destined to make her mark. “I really feel like the best connections are being made here because it’s the capital city. All roads lead back to Montgomery, the Capitol and the State House,” she said. “I hope to make even a small mark on the community by being active and proactive.”
KATIE PERKOWSKI/Marketing Director, Alabama Shakespeare Festival
When Katie Perkowski and her husband, Leon, moved to Montgomery in 2005, the Ohio native had never lived in the South. She never imagined the capital city would one day become her new hometown. But it didn’t take on the first try.
She met her husband, who is in the Air Force, in Germany, where she was an opera singer and also handling marketing for a management company. They married in 2003 and moved to Cambridge, England, where she was a community programs director for the Air Force base, arranging everything from carnivals to USO shows. “It’s strange, because it seems every job I’ve had before came together to inform the job I have now,” she said. “I was always involved somehow in marketing and in some theatrical capacity.”
They arrived in Montgomery for Leon to attend the Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) at Maxwell Air Force Base. “Leon had lived in the South before, in South Carolina. I had not at all,” Perkowski said. “My sister-in-law had been here for ACSC – she’s a pilot – and told me I could hide at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. She said it was a magnificent theater. So as soon as I got here I reached out to them and began to volunteer and then of course they eventually made me work for them,” she joked.
She worked at ASF in the box office from 2006-2008. In her job, she interacted with visitors nearly every day. “At that time, downtown was still ‘seedy,’ and just staring its renaissance, but it wasn’t really somewhere you wanted to be to hang out, to walk around a lot,” she said. “In my job at the box office, I was always talking to visitors who were sort of weary of Montgomery. They visited often to see the shows at ASF, but felt they had done all there was to do here. There was nothing more to see.”
Leon loved ACSC and decided he would like to be an instructor there, so the couple moved to Kent, Ohio, in 2008 for Leon to complete a Ph.D. They returned in 2012, although Katie initially was still teaching at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and not living here full time. But the couple had two children, and when it was time for her son to enter kindergarten, she knew she needed to make her move here permanent.
The timing worked out perfectly as the marketing director job opened up at ASF, and she returned to the theater. “I have such a different narrative to present now. Montgomery is charming. Downtown has just enough of that big-city feel without all the yucky parts. With the military, we lived in several states and a few different countries. Montgomery has so much going for it, and I really see it continuing on this trajectory for growth.”
She is firmly behind her new home and overflowing with ideas to continue its positive progress. At the top of the list, she says she would like to see an expansion of public resources, moving away from the “pay to play” model. She lists some of her favorite amenities Montgomery currently has like Blount Cultural Park, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the Zoo and the splash pad downtown. “The more community resources there are just for the public to enjoy, the more growth you’re going to see in every sector,” she said.
BRANDON STOUDENMIER/Owner, River Paws Pet Resort
If you had told him even two years ago that he would own his own business in his hometown at the age of 25, Brandon Stoudenmier says he isn’t sure he would have believed you. Yet almost exactly one year ago, he opened River Paws Pet Resort, a doggy daycare, boarding and grooming facility located on S. Hull Street in downtown Montgomery.
Always interested in animals, Stoudenmier originally planned to become a veterinarian. After graduating from BTW Magnet school, he began pursuing a degree in biology at Troy University and working part time at Taylor Crossing Animal Hospital. At that time, a new trend was emerging – doggy daycare and specialized pet services. “Ten years ago, who would have thought that people would be interested in doggy daycare,” Stoudenmier said. “But now, the dog is part of the family. I started to realize that my real goal would be to run a pet boarding and daycare facility. I thought, why incur more student loans and debt for vet school, when I could focus on pet care?”
He decided to finish his degree in biology and take some time to think about the future. He was approached by a non-profit organization and offered a job in Indiana as a consultant, which would allow him to do a lot of traveling in the area. “I had only ever lived in Montgomery, and the farthest I had gone for any period of time was Troy,” he said. “I decided to move, experience a new place, save some money and see if I still had a passion to open a pet care place after a bit of time passed.”
He did. And he knew he wanted to return to Montgomery to establish his business. “It was hard being 10 hours away from home and my family. Also it was scary thinking about opening a business someplace I didn’t know well. I knew Montgomery when downtown was a scary place you didn’t visit after the working hours were over. But with the revitalization, it presented an incredible opportunity.”
He spent a year planning the business and began working with a local realtor to find a location. When he returned to Montgomery in the fall, the realtor had four potential places lined up, and the last one he toured is now the location of River Paws Pet Resort. He began working with an architect to renovate the building, and he connected with Lisa McGinty at the Chamber’s Small Business Resource Center. Through the SBRC programs, she began helping him fine-tune his business plan and apply for a loan through the Small Business Association (SBA). “Getting a small business loan through the SBA takes work. Because it’s a government loan, there are a lot of steps in the process and it takes a lot longer than you would think,” he said. Now, he works with the SBRC as a volunteer, talking to other young professionals thinking about starting a business, sharing his experiences.
About 80 percent of his clients work downtown. People also bring their pets to him to board from out east, going out of their way to bring their pets to stay at River Paws. He has several boarding areas for dogs of various sizes, as well as a large outdoor play area where groups of dogs can play together. Most areas are equipped with cameras so pet owners can log onto the River Paws website to check on their dog and enjoy seeing them. River Paws also has a separate area for boarding cats, cat condos and an open play area.
“The life of the city is in downtown,” Stoudenmier said. “Montgomery is still very much an untapped market, especially downtown. It opens the doorway for young people to find opportunity. Downtown has a lot of vacant buildings that are completely doable for someone my age. They may need a little TLC, but if you are willing to make the sacrifice you can realize a great reward.”