2023 Athens’ Game Changers
By Hailea Boykin | Photography by Evermore Photo Co.
Athens is an incredible community where passionate compassion runs deep. Many of the challenges and opportunities the community faces today are dramatically different from those of ages past. It is critically important that we have fresh eyes and minds to address our changing environment. It takes all of us — past, present, and future leaders — working together to maximize our community impact.
The Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Athens magazine, is pleased to reveal the first annual Gamechangers — 10 Athenians under 40 years of age whose extraordinary efforts are making Athens-Clarke County a better place to live. These leaders exemplify, through their work and other community efforts, a hope that the best Athens is the Athens ahead of us.
— David Bradley
President/CEO Athens Area Chamber of Commerce
Education: Mitchell has a bachelor’s in healthcare management from Anderson University.
Employer: SouthState Bank N.A.
Occupation: Branch Manager II/AVP
Greatest Athens organization connections: Mitchell is chair of the Women Who Work committee Kick ATH Women, co-founder of Im.P.A.C.T. (Improving Parents and Children working Together) for Advancement and is part of the LEAD Athens Alumni Association.
Most proud of: She has always been incredibly blessed. Blessed to be born in a great family with a legacy of strong independent women, to receive adequate education and to be more or less healthy. Mitchell is aware that most people aren’t so lucky in their lives and therefore is grateful for anything that she’s achieved, be it an excellent result in her career or in the community.
Strongest Influence: There have been a lot of people throughout the years who have truly made an impact on Mitchell’s life. The most influential people have always been the people closest to her. Her mema, mama and auntie Darlene created a stable foundation, provided structure, guided spiritual beliefs, always forced her to do right by others and do her best!
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Your attitude determines your altitude!”
A unique fact: During her senior year at Hart County High School she was voted Class Clown. Although, she thinks this was a joke because she’s definitely not funny!
Education: Bray has a degree in public relations from the University of North Georgia.
Employer: Books for Keeps
Occupation: Executive Director
Greatest Athens organization connections: Prior to taking the executive director position at Books for Keeps, Bray served as the director of operations and program manager for their flagship Stop Summer Slide program. He has served on the ACC Development Authority and, most recently, the library board for the county. Additionally, Bray serves the Classic City Rollergirls first as a referee and then their head coach.
Most proud of: Bray is most proud of where Books for Keeps is today and the incredible community of people surrounding it. He has had the pleasure of bringing a bookmobile to our organization and community while also conceptualizing, creating and growing their literacy mentors program.
Strongest Influence: His strongest influence are the more than 10,000 elementary-aged children Books for Keeps serves annually. One of Bray’s greatest motivations is being the adult he wishes he had as a kid, for the children they serve through Books for Keeps and beyond.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “There’s nobody watching, waiting for you to fail. All you have to do to succeed is to make the thing that only you can. How many people you help is irrelevant, it’s enough to help one person, and you have to start with yourself. Be you. You’re the only you there is and we need your voice here too.”
A unique fact: Bray is founder and co-host of a podcast called Chapel Bell Curve, about UGA football. Over the past six years, they’ve been featured on the Top 200 for Apple Podcasts, interviewed a handful of celebrity figures and enjoyed more than one million downloads.
Education: Valentine is a Ph.D. Candidate (ABD) in Public Administration & Policy at the University of Georgia. He also has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Public Administration from the UGA.
Employer: Historic Athens
Occupation: Executive Director
Greatest Athens organization connections: In addition to two decades of formal management experience in the public and private sector, much of Valentine’s leadership style was defined through his experience as a participant and organizer in the Athens music community.
Most proud of: Valentine is most proud of the relationships he’s developed as an advocate, friend, husband, father, mentor and community member.
Strongest Influence: Valentine’s strongest influences are his family, friends, educators, mentors, books, films, faith, coaches, scouting, service industry, management, UGA, Clark County School District and the Athens music scene.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Invest in mentorship, both as a mentor and mentee. Solving problems and growing as a person requires the perspective, wise counsel and inspiration that only mentorship can provide. Mentorship will change you as a leader, public servant and human being.”
A unique fact: Valentine is an Eagle Scout, a soon-to-be UGA triple Dawg and, as a youth, was an accomplished hip-hop artist.
Education: Smothers received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University and a master’s degree in gifted education from the University of Georgia.
Employer: Joy Village School
Occupation: Director and CEO
Greatest Athens organization connections: Smothers’ 13-year career in education has included directing Freedom to Grow Unschool, teaching at Athens Christian School, leading outreach for Downtown Ministries and launching the Joy Village School, Athens’ only K-8th private school centering around the joy and thriving of Black youth. Smothers was also honored to share her unique educational philosophy at TEDxUGA 2014.
Most proud of: Smothers’ proudest achievement is stepping out in faith to start the Joy Village School. Knowing that she is leaving behind a safe haven where Black students can be themselves and celebrate their culture is a dream fulfilled!
Strongest Influence: Smothers is inspired by the Black educators of Athens’ past who, despite the oppression they faced, created little oases of educational excellence where people could thrive. She stands on the shoulders of women like Judia Jackson Harris, Annie Burney and Evelyn C. Neely with deep gratitude.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Don’t be afraid to chase your big dream, even if the task is daunting. Your idea just might change the game.”
A unique fact: Smothers played basketball for Emory University and graduated as the third all-time leading scorer.
Education: Stephens double majored in consumer economics and housing at the University of Georgia.
Employer: Stephens Limo Service/Athens Trolley Tours
Greatest Athens organization connections: As co-chair of The Benjamin John Stephens Foundation, they partnered with St. Mary’s Hospital to create a guest house for visiting families of patients. The foundation has also created scholarships to support local students. Stephens is a former board member of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, among others.
Most proud of: Stephens is most proud of his family and the community. The people, culture and so many great things make this town The Classic City. When asked where he is from, he’s always proud to tell them Athens, Ga., as there is no other place in the world like it!
Strongest Influence: Stephens’ strongest influences are his brother and dad. His dad, “Big Dog” Terry Stephens, instilled a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit into him from an early age. His younger brother, Ben, did more living in 32 years than some will get out of 90, which is where the motto “Live Like Ben” came from. The way Ben lived his life is truly an inspiration and Stephens has made it his mission to carry the torch.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Find your passion, follow your gut and go for it! As the great General Patton once said, ‘A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.’ Half of the battle is just getting started ... ”
A unique fact: He was a walk-on defensive back for the UGA football team from 2002 to 2004, winning both SEC and Sugar Bowl rings. Stephens was also a member of the 1999 Oconee County State Champion Football Team and grew up playing for the Athens YMCA Bulldogs who won the National Youth Football Championship in the early 90s.
Education: Bonanno has certifications in Addiction Recovery Support Services: CPS-AD, FPM, and is Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business management.
Employer: Acceptance Recovery Center (ARC)
Occupation: Nonprofit Management and Marketing
Greatest Athens organization connections: In her role at ARC and as the President of Athens Pride and Queer Collective, she has been able to partner with the Georgia Council on Recovery to create the first ever queer-focused recovery community organization, Inclusive Recovery, which bridges the local gap between the queer community and the recovery community.
Most proud of: Bonanno is most proud of being the first trans woman to lead Athens Pride and Queer Collective as President of the organization.
Strongest Influence: Her strongest influence is Brandy Anderson, CEO of ARC. Brandy has helped mold Bonanno into the leader she is today. Anderson has shown her what it looks like to lead with empathy, compassion and integrity. She has also taught Bonanno that it is OK to make noise for what you are truly passionate about.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Look for leadership opportunities in your community outside of work. Always use your voice and align your passion with purpose.”
A unique fact: Bonanno is a survivor of the sex trade and uses her voice to empower other trans women who have lived similar experiences to break the cycles of trauma and addiction.
Education: Nichelson graduated with an ABJ in Public Relations from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Georgia.
Employer: Elwood & Goetz Wealth Advisory Group
Occupation: Chief of Staff
Greatest Athens organization connections: Nichelson serves as president of the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, helping families achieve their dreams of home ownership. He is also a member of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce’s LEAD Athens program and the Athens Kiwanis Club.
Most proud of: Nichelson is most proud of the tight-knit relationships he has with his closest family and friends. As his sources of strength and support, they’ve given him meaningful connections that have made him a better person — embracing him for who he is, empowering him to cultivate his own convictions and emboldening him to stand firmly in his values.
Strongest Influence: His strongest influences are his parents, who taught him to love deeply and pursue his potential, his nanny, who demonstrated how to put others first and to keep standing up no matter how many times life tries knocking you down, and his husband, Ben, who stands beside him, walks with him and inspires him to never stop dreaming of and building a better future.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.’ You must decide what success looks like to you and then get off the sidelines and into the fights that need to be fought. Progress is a process, you can create real change for the people, places and causes that matter most to you.”
A unique fact: Nichelson only ever lived in two places: Rockmart, Ga., for the first 18 years of his life and, if he’s lucky, Athens for all the rest.
Education: Tedford has an associate degree with applied science in early childhood education and is currently attending Piedmont University for a bachelor’s degree in elementary education P-5.
Employer: Clarke County School District
Occupation: District Translator
Greatest Athens organization connections: City of Refuge Athens is a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to helping the homeless in Athens. In the fall 2019, City of Refuge Athens partnered with Tedford to provide for underserved students. When COVID-19 hit, they began serving families meals on a weekly basis, along with providing school resources to support their academics and access to COVID tests. They continue to serve families in Clarke County School District in multiple schools.
Most proud of: Tedford is most proud of her two girls. Her oldest daughter was recently diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO) and has been a warrior. Tedford’s youngest daughter is kind and is always willing to serve others. She has been such a trooper while they take care of her sister.
Strongest Influence: Her strongest influences are her parents. She grew up in a country where most have very little but always share, even if that means giving their time. Her parents taught her to be compassionate, caring, kind and loving to everyone she makes contact with. Tedford’s father left a value instilled in her that she is honored to pass on to her family, “Always give to the world what you want to receive.”
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Get involved in serving your community and mentor young children. They are the future of this world. Donate time if you cannot donate financially, local schools are a great place to start. Develop a growth mindset and you will find a sense of purpose ...”
A unique fact: Tedford is from Lima, Peru. She moved to the United States at 14 years old where she went on to graduate from Clarke Central High School. Go Gladiators!
CAMERON JAY HARRELSON
Education: Harrelson attended the University of Georgia for two years before deciding to pursue other opportunities. In 2021 he resumed his studies at the University of West Georgia and is currently majoring in criminology.
Employer: Cox Media Group and Classic City Crime Podcast
Occupation: Media Consultant and Podcaster
Greatest Athens organization connections: Cameron is the creator, host, writer and producer of Classic City Crime Podcast, a true crime podcast consumed globally. He is also the immediate past president of Athens Pride and Queer Collective where he coordinated Athens’ first ever Pride Parade. He is a member of the Mayor’s Human Relations Commission and an avid advocate in our local government, spearheading the initiative that led to the Athens Rainbow Crosswalk installation downtown in 2022.
Most proud of: Harrelson is most proud of his work with Athens Pride and Queer Collective, where he’s worked to ensure that every child, youth and adult in Athens-Clarke County knows that their lives are valued, visible, safe, secure and uplifted.
Strongest Influence: His strongest influence is his community. Athens is filled with diverse people, from all walks of life, backgrounds and stories. It is these individuals who continually inspire him to show up and speak up.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Never forget: Leadership is not about being the loudest voice in the room. Instead, leadership is making sure people who are different from you have a seat at the table, about bringing people together to get things done and giving a voice to folks who have too often been forgotten.”
A unique fact: Harrelson worked in a funeral home for three years here in Athens — which he believes is why his podcast has chosen to focus on memorializing the lives of victims. He also plays piano, sings and enjoys writing.
Education: Dorman has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Operations Management, from Auburn University.
Employer: DPR Construction
Occupation: Operations Leader
Greatest Athens organization connections: Michael Burnett, Diane Altman and Steven Dasher and their team members at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and Piedmont Athens Foundation have been a pleasure for Dorman to get to know, support and work with over the past four years. He is incredibly grateful to have become friends with David Bradley and his team at the Athens Chamber of Commerce and this year he joined the Rotary Club of Athens. The University of Georgia, Office of University Architects and the Athletic Department pours everything they have into providing the best facilities and environment for students, staff and athletes.
Most proud of: Dorman is most proud of the successful delivery of the Piedmont Athens Master Facility Project. Construction started in the fall of 2018 and pressed forward through the pandemic. Collaboration with the community, hospital leadership, staff and trade partners enabled this project to completion in Q2 2022.
Strongest Influence: His strongest influence is his dad, Wes Dorman, who consistently instilled values of respect, integrity, generosity and a good work ethic.
Best advice for a future GameChanger: “Dream big. Take action. Serve. Lead.”
A unique fact: Dorman has lived in four different states and 10 different cities in the last 15 years.