Leading with Heart

Meet our five under 35 who are making a difference with hard work and Naples love

Photographed on location at The Hotel Escalante in Naples by Michael Caronchi.

Michael Walker

At just 23 years old, Michael Walker already bears the hallmarks of a professional athlete: The second-year wide receiver and return specialist for the Jacksonville Jaguars always shows up early and ready for anything. With six older brothers and an older sister, Walker is the youngest of the brood and a lifelong Naples resident who graduated from Naples High as a celebrated football captain before going on to play at Boston College. “I was the only one of my siblings to go to college outside of Florida, and it was a huge step,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself and who I am.”

Although he grew up in a bustling household—nicknamed Hotel Walker for the steady stream of kids pouring in and out—Walker admits that he was shy in middle school. As he came into his own and developed confidence through playing sports and being part of a team, this social anxiety gave way to a genuine ease and friendliness that is apparent to anyone who meets him. He attributes his most defining qualities and his generous heart to his close relationship with his ever-growing family, including parents Michael and Bonnie, who “should have the highest-level membership at Costco.”

He jokes that his older brothers “roughed me up and picked on me,” but credits their tough love for helping him transition from playing high school football to Division 1 football, then to the pros. “I’m always working hard to prove myself to my siblings and earn their respect,” he says. This attitude has helped Walker navigate the NFL. “It’s more independent. You train on your own and hold yourself accountable for your team, so you can play for your brothers and prove each week that you are prepared for Sunday.”

During COVID-19, Walker trained at Total Athletic Performance and Coach Tumbarello Performance in Naples and kept his physique in check at PhysioRight. He left Naples in mid-July  to report to Jags pre-season training and was looking forward to playing a pre-season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “It’s going to be surreal to be on the same field as Gronk and Tom Brady,” he says.

To chill out while in Naples, he hangs with his best friends, plays the piano, or takes a fishing pole to his “top-secret spots in the backwaters, where the mangroves are.” Before leaving for Jacksonville, he hit up his favorite eateries. “Andre’s Steak House for steak, potatoes, and asparagus, and the bacon appetizer. For something quick with my friends, I’ll grab the Western barbecue burger at Jimmy P’s, and I’m obsessed with the Korean beef tacos at Lake Park Diner.”

Even though he’s laser-focused on his football journey, Walker’s glad to have his bachelor’s in leadership management from Boston College. He’s considering earning a master’s degree so he can coach at the D1 level—or maybe joining all his brothers at Walker Contracting Group, his dad’s construction business. In the meantime, he’ll keep giving back to the community and working with individuals with special needs through Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine events and nonprofits such as STARability. “My parents raised us to serve others,” he says. “I carried this spirit with me to the Boston community, and now that I have this platform as an NFL player, I will build upon it.”

No matter what, Walker plans on returning to the Paradise Coast when the time comes to have his own Hotel Walker. “I realized how lucky I was to live in Naples when I went to college. Now I love coming home and want to raise my kids here.”

Kassidy Owen

Kassidy Owen, a 25-year-old Barre Fusion Pilates instructor, has the poised presence one might expect from someone in her line of work. In addition to her beautiful posture and healthy glow, the Las Vegas native has an endearing rasp in her voice as she says, “I fell in love with Naples as a college student. I used to come here during the summers to visit family friends.”

Back then, Owen reveled in the area’s lush, tropical exteriors, which were so different from the Vegas desert. However, she didn’t just move here to live and work in paradise, but rather to seek solace after enduring back-to-back tragedies: the devastating loss of her younger brother to leukemia, and the trauma of being in the center of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting and literally running for her life. “I had friends who were shot,” she recalls. “It flipped my world upside down.”

Fighting hard to persevere after such darkness, she sought the sunlight in Naples, the one place outside of Vegas where she felt as if she’d have a small support system. She found it hard to leave her parents and two sisters behind, but after she graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2018, with a bachelor’s in kinesiology, she packed her bags and embraced change. Slowly but surely, with therapy and self-care, Owen has learned to process her heavy emotions.

Exercise has helped her move forward, and she’ll sometimes bounce on a trampoline with music blasting when in need of a mood boost. Craving family connection, she’s created loving bonds with the two young girls she nannies part-time. “They had a lot to say about what I wore to this photo shoot,” Owen says.

Her biggest healing and sharing vehicle has been her blog, graciousand
. “I started it back in 2014, after I lost my brother. I needed to express what I was feeling and didn’t find a community that really understood. Not a lot of young people have lost someone very close to them. So, I released my blog on my personal social media platforms and started connecting with others who had lost special people when they were young. Now I write about grief and loss and how I get through it—and how practicing gratitude helps me not retreat but live my life to the fullest.”

During COVID-19, Owen had some followers reach out to her with their own struggles. She says many had been distanced from their loved ones, who were hospitalized and on ventilators, and needed advice and hope. Owen could relate. “My brother was in isolation for six months before he died. When I visited him, I had to wear a mask, gloves, and a full-body protective suit because his immune system was so compromised.”

Just being able to provide an understanding and safe place for her readers is meaningful to Owen, who is determined to give back as an expression of gratitude. When she lived in Las Vegas, she was very involved with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which fights pediatric cancers, and is on track to host a spring fundraiser in Naples. She knows the local community will rally around this cause. “Naples is one of the biggest blessings in my life,” she says. “I see myself staying here for a long time.”

Maria Plata

Chatty and curious, 27-year-old Maria Plata is planning a January 2021 wedding, and like most brides, she is doing a delicate dance with her mother. “My mom wants to incorporate as much of our Mexican heritage as possible and have as many family members there as possible,” Plata says. While she notes that her own taste is simpler and more intimate, her thirst for adventure and trying new things is vast.

Plata, an avid reader who used to escape in Harry Potter books, grew up in Immokalee, where her parents were migrant farm workers. She traveled with them up the coast and back, following the seasonal crops, until ninth grade, when she stayed behind with her mom to focus on school. She scored Immokalee Foundation and Guadalupe Center scholarships to attend Florida Gulf Coast University and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in communications and public relations. In college, she studied in the United Arab Emirates for six weeks, an experience that led her to embrace international travel and made her realize that she was capable of doing anything.

She cut her next adventure, teaching in Thailand as a post-grad, a few months short so she could come home and help with family issues. Plata is the second oldest of six siblings, and her mother has taught her the value of “what hard work will do for you.” After serving as a community health educator in Immokalee through Doctors Without Borders, she accepted a similar position at a different health care organization and is now focused on COVID-19. A graduate of the Leadership Collier Foundation program, she co-founded Roots of Immokalee with two friends and has since distributed almost 1,500 bandanas to farm workers and fed 50 families through a community food drive. This heartfelt project has a unifying social media platform that highlights stories of people in the community, reminding us all of our common threads.

“There are a lot of new young professionals here who want to make a change,” Plata says. “We may not have deep pockets like some of the older philanthropists do—and they do great things with their money—but we have new ideas and are very resourceful.”

When she unwinds with her fiancé, Yeison Orozco, they go to the beach or stroll downtown. “I love the botanical garden,” she says. “We do outdoorsy stuff together and try new dishes from mom-and-pop restaurants. Currently, I am into Thai food and curry.”

Though she may have to settle for a road-trip type of honeymoon in early 2021, she will never settle for a life without passion and purpose.

Peter Jean-Marie

If there’s a slick car parked close by and he’s wearing a cool outfit, 24-year-old fashion designer Peter Jean-Marie is quick to turn the opportunity into an impromptu photo shoot. Beyond his own Instagram, which is rapidly accumulating followers, the self-proclaimed “Millennial Mogul” is a staple across local print and television outlets. But beneath all the flash and his on-screen persona are real-deal  traits such as grit and patience.

Much like one of his business icons, Ralph Lauren, Jean-Marie launched his brand with neck ties. He is skilled at pattern making and sewing, but when he needs to, he outsources the construction to two people he has trained. Jean-Marie has spent the last 21 years in Naples, not including his time at Miami International University of Art & Design, where he earned an associate’s degree in fashion design.

Jean-Marie keeps busy, which is a principle everyone in his immediate family adheres to. “My mom [Elide] and my brother [Johny] are very work-oriented,” he says. “At one point, my mom was raising three of us and working three jobs. My work routine is intense. I work overnight as a front desk agent at a hotel, I sleep a couple hours during the day, then I work on my brand. My night job taught me more discipline. It can be quiet, so I get to reflect more on my dreams and come up with ideas.”

During the coronavirus shutdown, Jean-Marie was furloughed from his hotel job, so he sewed and distributed more than 1,000 masks. He also got a gig doing Instacart shopping and turned that into a networking opportunity, sharing business cards and making tie sales during his deliveries.

With a dad in the food industry and a mom in health care, just where did Jean-Marie get his fashion sense? “Honestly, I had a good imagination when I was younger. I’d watch shows on Disney and Nickelodeon and think, ‘I want to live like that,’ which turned into a little bit of professional modeling.” Since then, his fashion taste has become more sophisticated. He cites style role models like Sean Combs—“he has an entrepreneurial mindset”—and athlete Russell Westbrook, “who throws on whatever and looks good.” Jean-Marie describes his own style as “not too dressy or casual. I’ll wear sneakers with nice slacks and a button-down and bow tie, that’s my everyday look.”

Eventually, Jean-Marie hopes to open a storefront in Mercato. Until then, he’s busy expanding his menswear line, developing looks for women, talking to large department stores about partnerships, and working on a documentary about his upbringing. Other future goals include styling someone famous like LeBron James and attending The Met Gala. Many of his friends, he says, urged him to pursue his career in a bigger, more fashion-forward city like Miami or New York, but he listened to his mom instead and stayed local in order to grow his business at a sustainable pace. “What I love about Naples is the support,” he says. “I built myself up in a place where fashion isn’t the main thing. But sharing my dreams here has been great.”

Holly Strickland

A couple mornings each week, 35-year-old Holly Strickland, a married working mom of an energetic 2-year-old boy, Maverick, pries herself out of bed at 3:45 a.m. After sipping her coffee, she throws on some workout clothes, laces up her sneakers, and heads over to Burn Boot Camp, the boutique fitness studio she teaches at and owns.

While her intense schedule sometimes means she doesn’t return home until after 7:30 p.m., she finds time during the day to connect with her son and strike a healthy work-life balance. What’s more, she’s eyeing a second location in Naples where a lease will permit her to have men as clients, too. This buff boss lady couldn’t do it all without the help of her lieutenant firefighter husband, Justin Strickland, whom she dated briefly in middle school and then reconnected with in 2007. Also essential in caring for Maverick are her mother and mother-in-law, who take turns watching him.

Strickland has lived in Naples since she was a baby, except for the four years she spent at the University of Central Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s in sports and fitness and was on a full-ride scholarship for women’s golf. “I still play golf for fun,” she says, noting that her favorite local rounds are at Great Oaks and Calusa Pines. “I was an assistant coach for the girls’ team at Gulf Coast High School last year. So many people gave to me in my golf career and I wanted to give back.”

After college, she found that she was more interested in the physical side of training for golf than in participating in tournaments. Once she decided to stop playing competitively, she devoted herself to becoming a top-notch fitness professional, motivating her clients with her megawatt smile and cheerful disposition.

Outside of the studio, Strickland prefers to be on the boat with her husband, who is a charter captain on the side, and their son. “I’m really an outdoors girl,” she says. “For date nights, the boat is my thing. We will pick up a sub for dinner and go out on the Glades or the Marco River and tarpon fish. Sometimes, we will ride four-wheelers side by side.” When Maverick tags along, they ride a custom six-seater on the trails or put him on the boat—two activities he loves as much as they do.

As of late, Strickland is busy transitioning Burn Boot Camp from virtual classes and offerings to an in-person model again, with strict cleaning and social distancing protocols in place. Yet, she wonders what adding another kid into the mix would do, especially if she moves forward with opening a second location. Those decisions can wait for now, as she revels in being a business owner and caring citizen within the Naples community.

“There are so many cool things happening here,” she says. “We are involved with Hook a Hero, an organization that takes soldiers, vets, and first responders out fishing. I’ve had an event for Hook a Hero at my gym to raise money. They send people on trips to get a change of scenery and the help they need.” In addition to this involvement, the self-professed optimist says she has a personal mission to see the “the best in everybody” and help others shine a light on the wonderful qualities they possess.

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