The Barney Maffett building… Kaja’s flavor packs… Overcoming barriers…
If these names aren’t familiar to you, they won’t be for long. To those who reside in Muskegon Heights, they all represent staples, past and present, of the community. Kaja Thornton Hunter, who oversees all three businesses, has had some curious moments dating back to her family’s arrival in Muskegon County.
The Barney Maffett Center, now home to all of Thornton Hunter’s businesses, was previously the Boelkins Grocery Store, where Thornton Hunter’s mother Rosie Lee Thornton makes history.
Thornton taught in the Muskegon Heights School District, his first job after arriving from Arkansas. During those times, blacks weren’t allowed into 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 fell on the list while looking for a property to house her efforts, she knew this was the place. ideal. This included hosting the office of Overcoming Barriers Inc., started as JBC under his parents’ management nearly 29 years ago.
Passion for care
Thornton Hunter’s first job after high school was working with HGA Support Services Group Homes in Muskegon, where she continued to work during college breaks at Ferris State University. During this time, she developed a passion and love for caring for and working with people with disabilities, which her parents noticed. When her parents were preparing for retirement, they contacted Thornton Hunter to take over the JBC group home, which she did, changing the name to Overcoming Barriers.
“There was something about me that said, ‘You help people overcome their barriers’ – housing barriers, employment barriers – that’s what it meant,” says Thornton Hunter, after started the organization in 2017. Immediately after launching its operation, there was a need to expand the group homes, and three more homes were opened within two months.
Business and operations now take place off Barney Maffett’s site, with the help of D’Erika Nichols-Woods and Jeff Walker, whom Thornton Hunter calls “my left and right hands.” They’ve been by her side every step of the way, including helping her launch Kaja’s flavor packs.
When Thornton Hunter transferred from Ferris to Savannah State University, a historically black university in Georgia where she received her Human Services degree, she discovered her love for Southern food and culture. Thornton Hunter spent 10 years in the area after getting married and starting a family. When she made the decision to return to Muskegon to be closer to her family, she missed the culture of the South, especially crab boils, and decided to start having some for her family and friends.
Kaja’s Crab Boils and Flavor Packs
It was New Years Eve 2010 when she invited friends over for a crab boil celebration, posting the event on Facebook. In the end, over 200 people showed up and turned the celebration into a three-day event. The crab’s annual boils continued to grow, but in 2017, when she started to overcome the obstacles, she had no time to keep the parties going.
In an effort to raise funds for his nonprofit, Thornton Hunter began selling boiled crab dinners for $ 25 from his parents’ garage. After a few sales, she had raised enough money to furnish her group homes and buy another house.
With the growth of Overcoming Barriers, Thornton Hunter no longer had time to organize dinners, so she decided to pack the seasonings used for her popular crab boils in 2019, and Kaja’s flavor packs are coming up. born.
A portion of the proceeds continues to flow to Overcoming Barriers, where it all began. They can be purchased online and at local markets, pop-up venues 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 will be available in the fall at Meijer stores in the Muskegon area.
Thornton Hunter says operating the three companies continues to be a learning process with its ups and downs. “I just wanted to help people. I didn’t know the end of it all, ”she explains, pointing out all the demands of running a nonprofit organization and learning entrepreneurship.
With the help and support of those close to her, including her husband, Derrick Hunter, who she turns to whenever there is a need for maintenance, Thornton Hunter is working to make the process run more smoothly for other entrepreneurs. This includes his right and left hands.
Nichols-Woods and Walker have their businesses and programs hosted by Barney Maffett, which includes Nichols-Wood’s production company, D’Risen Production LLC, and Walker’s Men of Recovery Evolving support group. They are also QPR Certified Suicide Prevention Instructors.
‘A non-stop hub for everything’
Thornton-Hunter’s goal of making Barney Maffett a “nonstop hub for everything” the community needs quickly materialized. The Jump High Institute for other entrepreneurs starting their business is located outside of the location. Thornton-Hunter is already partnering with the Grand Valley State University Innovation Center to help entrepreneurs as well. She is also partnering with Aldea Coffee, making Barney Maffett The Business Café, also known as ‘The Us Café’, for people in the community, including entrepreneurs, to come over for a coffee and use the space. The community has been there from the start, as volunteers from Overcoming Barriers come and help when needed.
Just as the motto of Kaja’s flavor packs says, Thornton Hunter takes “The love of food and the love of good people” with her in all her endeavors. “We want to be that basic part of the community that has been and always has been here, but in a new and different way.”
You can follow Thornton Hunter’s business tips 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 addresses: