If you thought your life was complicated, meet the Almonds — Donavan and Jacqi — who own and operate two Napa Valley-based businesses, have four children (one with special needs) and still find time to be active participants in the local community.
Since moving to the area from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2007, Donavan has become one of the valley’s most sought-after and popular fitness and wellness gurus, while Jacqi — a popular fitness instructor in her own right — is also a volunteer firefighter who spent much of the last two summers helping extinguish the region’s numerous infernos.
“We are busy but happy. We’ve found our home,” Donavan said. “The community is welcoming and supportive, and we believe that the future is bright for the valley — growing into more than a wine and food destination but increasingly becoming a fitness and wellness destination, too.”
What’s your superpower?
The couple met while attending James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Jacqui studied sports marketing and Donavan focused on kinesiology — the study of human movement and how it impacts health and well-being. Both intended to work within the world of sports, although their exact paths were not yet clear.
Growing up, each had played sports and grown to appreciate the discipline, skill and dedication that were needed to reach the highest levels. They each had also developed a better understanding of their own strengths.
“Everyone has their own superpower,” Donavan said. “Mine is awareness and Jacqi’s is tenacity. The combination has come in handy as we’ve built our family and our businesses together.”
Donavan was born in Atlanta, where his mother worked in the life-insurance business and his father worked as an engineer for BellSouth, the local telecommunication company. By the time he was 4 years old he was showing signs of his superpower, providing driving directions to his mother on the way home during family outings and having a keen awareness of the movement of people around him.
“It was something that just came naturally to me,” he said, “but it has allowed me to help my clients over the years by focusing on and helping define, refine and strengthen their natural movements.”
Jacqi grew up outside Washington, D.C., where her mother worked in the postal service’s engineering department and her father was a physicist at a company she found out after his death was actually a secret division within the government.
After college the couple moved back to Atlanta to attend Georgia State University and obtain their masters degrees. Jacqi also worked with the Atlanta Falcons’ marketing team while Donavan took a personal-trainer position at a downtown athletics club.
In what seemed like perfect timing, as their programs were wrapping up, a representative — Richard Hill — from a newly built Auberge-owned resort in Calistoga, Solage, came into the Atlanta gym for a workout.
“Richard was in Atlanta for a meeting and we started talking,” Donavan said. “A few months later I moved to California and started working at Solage, and a few months after that Jacqi and I got married and moved here.”
The whirlwind few months followed by a change from big-city life to rural living was a bit of a shock for Jacqi when she arrived.
“I’m a big-city girl, and for a while I felt a bit disorientated,” she said. “It took a few years to find my footing, but now it would be hard for me to think about living anywhere else.”
Fast forward from 2007, and although the Almonds no longer work at Solage they do provide personal-fitness services to many other local resorts — the Meritage, Carneros Resort and Spa and Auberge du Soleil.
“We value [their] company’s expertise in all things fitness and health,” said George Goeggel, managing partner of Auberge du Soleil, “as well as their friendly, well-trained staff and their close ties to the Napa Valley community,”
Like many young entrepreneurs, the Almonds have their hands in more than just one single type of activity. They own and operate Donavan’s Wellness Solutions, which assists local resorts, spas and gyms, and they also have their own smartphone app, the Calistoga Fit app that provides unlimited access to more than 100 fitness, yoga, meditation and other classes online.
Beyond their work with local resorts and managing their virtual classes, the couple also operates a studio and gym in Calistoga where they provide personal training and live fitness classes. It is also becoming a common occurrence lately — when conditions allow — to see them leading dozens of people in socially distanced group-training sessions in Calistoga’s Pioneer Park just off the town’s main street.
The client list for the Almonds is extensive and includes those looking to improve or maintain their health, rehab patients and assist both semi-professional and professional athletes. Hundreds of Napa Valley residents have hired and learned to value the Almonds — and their growing team of trainers — to help heal, improve overall health, strengthen, or prepare for triathlons, marathons and bodybuilding competitions.
“I’ve trained with Donavan nearly 14 years, and we strength train six days a week in the outdoor gym he helped me design,” said Susan Hoff, co-proprietor with her husband, Duane, of St. Helena’s Fantesca Estate and Winery. “He helped me win a World Bodybuilding Fitness and Fashion Federation Pro Card at the World Bodybuilding Fitness and Fashion International Worlds Competition in Las Vegas in 2015, when I turned 50.”
Hoff still competes in the competition’s 35+ division. She is the oldest competitor onstage in the division and often places in the top 10 among international competitors.
Pat and Anne Stotesbery are proprietors of St. Helena’s Ladera Vineyards. The couple has been training with the Almonds since 2016, with two sessions each week at their home.
“It feels like we’ve known them for more than four years because we’ve formed a really great bond/relationship, which I doubt is unique to us since they are both the sort of people you just have to like,” Pat wrote in an email. “The really cool thing is that they’ve done all this — made all these relationships and managed to also run a profitable business — which is the definition of bootstrapping your way to the American dream!”
Like many locals, the Almonds were forced to evacuate during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. As they drove out of town, Jacqi couldn’t stop thinking about how she might help.
Within weeks she asked friend and gym client Jeff Lemelin, a volunteer battalion chief for Sonoma County, what it takes to become a volunteer firefighter. One year later she was one.
“Jacqi Almond has been with the Sonoma County Fire District since 2018, when she enrolled into the Volunteer Fire Academy at the Santa Rosa Junior College,” Lemelin wrote. “Since she joined she’s been on numerous [major] fires in a short amount of time — the Kincade Fire, the Glass Fire and the LNU Complex Fire, to name a few.”
Since becoming a volunteer, Jacqi has become one of Lemelin’s “go-to firefighters.”
According to both Jacqi and Lemelin, firefighting is a physically demanding job that requires quick thinking, while improvising and adapting to overcome dynamic situations.
“Jacqi is always professional, eager to learn, quick on her feet and flexible,” Lemelin wrote. “I think being a mom to four kids has prepared her to multitask and always have an eye out for the safety of others.”
Learning to see from other points of view
Parents with children are always learning to adapt and remain flexible. Having four children — Caleb, 12; Isabella, 10; Elijah, 8; and Dominic, 4 — allows the Almonds ample opportunity to practice such skills and gain new insights.
“Our oldest, Caleb, is autistic and we are constantly in awe at how he provides us a new way to see things from a different perspective,” Donavan said. “He is the biggest teacher. He doesn’t judge others, and he sees each person as who they are. He teaches us patience and empathy and teaches us ways to connect to others that we’d never considered. It’s not always easy, but we treasure all our children for who they are and where they are and what they teach us.”
Being parents in a time of Black Lives Matter
“I didn’t grow up thinking much about race, but today I have to,” Jacqi said. “I never thought I’d need to tell my 8-year-old that he shouldn’t wear a hoodie sweatshirt outside at night, but that’s something we talk about. The community is warm and welcoming here, but there are those out there that make such conversations necessary.”
Growing up in Atlanta provided Donavan with a certain point of view about race in America.
“As we are seeing from the recent election results in Georgia, Atlanta is not shy about talking about or dealing with race in America,” Donavan said. “I think that comes from the fact that many African American leaders came from Atlanta — Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Stacey Abrams and others. There are also African Americans at every level of the economic scale there. This, I believe, created an environment of confidence and helped lay a foundation for real positive lasting change.”
The future of fitness in the Napa Valley
The Almonds envision Napa Valley becoming a health and wellness destination but also a region that has the makings of becoming a place on the globe known for living longer, healthier lives. This idea, termed, “Blue Zones” in a 2005 National Geographic story, “The Secrets of a Long Life,” is not so much the end goal but more of a long-term vision for living in a healthy community.
“Blue Zones create living and working habits that encompass a wellness/preventive mentality,” Stotesbery wrote. “In fact, Donavan and I were part of an early study group discussing the possibility of a Blue Zone application here in the Napa Valley. This is ongoing, and I am certain that if we ever get it really going, he’ll want to be a part of it. He talks this stuff because he believes in it and wants to contribute to it.”
What the future of the Napa Valley becomes remains undetermined, but what is clear is that having innovative, entrepreneurial, community-centered families that live lives of service such as the Almonds is the lifeblood of any vibrant community.
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Photos: Napa Valley Marathon 2020