Local woman passionate about helping those with special needs

By Teresa Taylor Williams

Tribune Contributor

A few years ago, some people thought Kaja Thornton-Hunter had lost her mind.

At that time, the single mother of two had quit a “good” job with the county, but she was uncertain what her next move would be.

Looking back, she said she had no regrets that she followed her heart and stepped out on faith to open an adult foster care home.

And it’s been working for her ever since.

It would be nice to say that Thornton-Hunter had a job lined up or a business plan to start her own business.

But she didn’t. On the contrary, she didn’t know how exactly she was going to support her family.

What she knew for sure was that she had a heart for adults with special needs, and she was passionate about working closely with them. While at her former employer, Healthwest, she felt and saw a hole in the residential system. There were many clients who had a desire to live independently, “they just needed a little help,” she said.

“I’m an in-the-trenches person, not a behind-the-desk person. So, one day in 2015, I jumped,” said Thornton. “The jump was in my spirit.”

Jumping into the Birth of “Overcoming Barriers”

Thornton-Hunter is a tall woman with a constant warm smile. But she becomes serious when it comes to talking about people with special needs.

“Many people don’t want to work with this population because it makes them uncomfortable. I’m not sure why, but it could be a fear of the unknown. They might not have taken the time to get to know them, but they’re regular people,” said Thornton-Hunter. “Everyone has issues and barriers.”  Hence the name of her business, Overcoming Barriers.

In the meantime, while she tried to figure out her next career move, she tried her hand at substitute teaching and teaching lifeskills. “I loved the kids but my heart was tugging to work with people with disabilities,” she said.

She followed her heart and within her first year of licensing and incorporation, she opened four group homes.

Adult foster care residences and homes for the aged provide licensed care for adults ages 55 and older, and also for individuals with a mental illness, developmental or physical disability who do not need continuous nursing care but cannot live alone, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.  Usually these homes are located in residential neighborhoods and may house up to 21 individuals. They are provided with 24-hour personal care, protection and supervision.

On a recent visit to one of her sites in Muskegon Heights, it was apparent that this was not a facility at all, but truly a home. The residents were milling about the house with staff, listening to music, chatting in the living room, or napping. In the kitchen, there were balloons and a half-eaten birthday cake, evidence that there was a celebration for one of the residents the day before.

What was truly apparent was the caring relationships between staff and the residents. Hugs were given freely by all.

“I am a giver and we (the staff) like to give to the residents,” said Thornton-Hunter. “I try to always be a compassionate and caring person.”

A Great Support system

Family is everything to Thornton-Hunter. She married Derrick Hunter around the same time Overcoming Barriers got off the ground, and he is extremely supportive, she said. The adult foster care business is a family affair that includes her husband and their four children.

Thornton-Hunter said she learned firsthand about adult foster care from the best: her parents. They ran JBC Homes, and they were one of the first families in the Muskegon area to run a group home.

What does the future hold? Hopefully opening more adult foster homes throughout Muskegon County, said Thornton-Hunter. She would also like to open her own restaurant.

For those who dream of leaving their jobs to pursue their passion or open their own business, Thornton-Hunter has some advice.

“Whatever is pulling you or tugging at you, go towards it. The jump may be a little turbulent, and It may seem uncomfortable for awhile, but don’t be afraid to take the leap of faith,” she said.


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