Kaja Thornton Hunter ‘overcoming barriers’ in her community with full-circle moments

The Barney Maffett Building … Kaja’s Flavor Packs … Overcoming Barriers …

If these names are unfamiliar, they will not be for long. For those who reside in Muskegon Heights, they all represent staples, past and present, of the community. Kaja Thornton Hunter, who oversees all three undertakings, has been experiencing full-circle moments that date back to her family’s arrival to Muskegon County.

The Barney Maffett Center, which now houses all of Thornton Hunter’s businesses, previously was Boelkins Grocery Store, which is where Thornton Hunter’s mom, Rosie Lee Thornton, enters the story.

Thornton taught in the Muskegon Heights School District, her first job after arriving from Arkansas. During these times, Black people weren’t allowed in the local store, but Thornton — a home economics teacher at the time — would become the first Black teacher to land a food contract with Boelkins for one of the schools.

Thornton Hunter never imagined that she would one day acquire the community staple, but once she came across the listing while searching for a property to house her endeavors, she knew it was the perfect place. This included housing the office of Overcoming Barriers Inc., launched as JBC under her parents’ leadership almost 29 years ago. 

Passion for caring

Thornton Hunter’s first job out of high school was working with the group homes of HGA Support Services in Muskegon, where she continued working during breaks from college at Ferris State University. During this time, she developed a passion and love for taking care of and working with individuals with disabilities, which her parents noticed. When her parents were preparing for retirement, they approached Thornton Hunter about taking over the JBC group home, which she did, changing the name to Overcoming Barriers.

“There was something in me saying, ‘You’re helping the people overcome their barriers’ — barriers in housing, barriers in employment — that’s what it meant,” Thornton Hunter says, having launched the organization in 2017. Immediately upon kicking off its operation, there was a need to expand the group homes, and three more homes were opened within a two-month period. 

Business and operations now take place out of the Barney Maffett location, with assistance from D’Erika Nichols-Woods and Jeff Walker, whom Thornton Hunter refers to as “my left and my right hands.” They have been by her side every step of the way, including assisting her with the launch of Kaja’s Flavor Packs.

When Thornton Hunter transferred from Ferris to Savannah State University, a historically Black college in Georgia where she obtained her human services degree, she discovered her love for the food and culture in the South. Thornton Hunter spent 10 years in the area after getting married and starting a family. When she made the decision to move back to Muskegon to be closer to family, she missed the culture of the South, particularly the crab boils, and decided to start having them for her family and friends.

Crab boils and Kaja’s Flavor Packs

It was New Year’s Eve of 2010 when she invited friends over for a crab boil celebration, posting the event on Facebook. In the end, more than 200 people showed up and turned the celebration into a three-day event. The annual crab boils continued to grow, but by 2017, when she had transitioned to starting Overcoming Barriers, she did not have the time to continue the parties. 

In an effort to raise funds for her nonprofit, Thornton Hunter started selling crab boil dinners for $25 out of her parents’ garage. After a few of the sales, she had raised enough money to furnish her group homes and purchase another home. 

With the growth of Overcoming Barriers, Thornton Hunter no longer had time to host the dinners, so she decided to package the seasonings used for her popular crab boils in 2019, and Kaja’s Flavor Packs was born. 

A portion of the proceeds continues to go to Overcoming Barriers, where it all started. They can be purchased online and at local markets, pop-up locations and events, such as the recent Muskegon Home, Garden + Boat Show, where the seasonings were used in three cooking demonstrations. Thornton Hunter also recently announced that Kaja’s Flavor Packs would be available at Muskegon-area Meijer locations by fall.

Thornton Hunter says that operating all three businesses continues to be a learning process with ups and downs. “I just wanted to help the people. I didn’t know the back end of it all,” she explains, pointing out all of the requirements that come with running a nonprofit along with learning about entrepreneurship. 

With the help and support of her loved ones, including her husband, Derrick Hunter, who she calls on whenever there is a maintenance need, Thornton Hunter works toward making the process smoother for other entrepreneurs. This includes her right and left hands.

Both Nichols-Woods and Walker have their businesses and programs housed out of Barney Maffett, which include Nichols-Wood’s production company, D’Risen Production LLC, and Walker’s Men of Recovery Evolving support group. They are also certified QPR gatekeeper instructors for suicide prevention.

‘Nonstop hub for everything’

Thornton-Hunter’s goal of making Barney Maffett a “nonstop hub for everything” the community needs, has quickly come to life. The Jump High Institute for other entrepreneurs starting their businesses is housed out of the location. Thornton-Hunter is already in partnership with the Grand Valley State University Innovation Center to assist entrepreneurs as well. She is also in partnership with Aldea Coffee, making Barney Maffett The Business Café, also known as “The Us Café”, for people in the community, including entrepreneurs, to come for coffee and utilize the space. The community has been  present from the beginning, as volunteers from Overcoming Barriers come in and assist as needed.

Just like the motto for Kaja’s Flavor Packs reads, Thornton Hunter takes “Love of food and love of good people” with her in all of her endeavors. “We want to be that community staple that has been and always was there, but in a new and different way.”

You can follow Thornton Hunter’s business advice and open conversations every Tuesday on Facebook Live at 12:30 p.m. on Tidbit Tuesdays. You can also contact and follow her at the following:

https://www.facebook.com/KajaFlavor 
https://kajasflavor.com/
https://www.overcomingbarriersinc.com/

Read more articles by Shanika P. Carter.

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