Fifteen years ago, Joseph “Joey Cuts” Thomas was just a barber who wanted to collect donated Thanksgiving turkeys for less fortunate families in the Kansas City metro.
He never dreamed that his Turkey Drive Tuesday would become a philanthropic hallmark of the season. In a time when many Americans are suffering from inflation at grocery stores, Thomas’ turkey drive is a much-needed resource for many struggling residents trying to bring a Thanksgiving meal to their families.
This year’s drive has another dimension beyond hunger: Kansas City-based hip-hop artist Krizz Kaliko will join with health workers to help raise awareness for mental health needs as well.
“I always had these ideas of stuff we could do in the community through the barber shop,” says Thomas, who owns 180V Barber Salon at 1805 Vine St. “I used to throw a lot of parties and productions, and for me, it just wasn’t fulfilling. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something for Thanksgiving, just a way to say thank you and give back.”
Thomas, along with a group of friends, began to use their connections to reach out to people and businesses in hopes of buying a few turkeys. The support they received that first year, collecting 27 turkeys, showed Thomas not only the need but the readiness of those who wanted to give.
They collect turkeys on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and pass them out to families the next day — for Thomas the ultimate combination of passion and opportunity. Every year, more people donate.
“Seeing the satisfaction on people’s faces and the feeling that comes along with being able to bless people made me want to keep doing it. Being able to talk to people and the relationships you build. Being able to earn those types of relationships is definitely the best part of it all,” he says.
Thomas founded the Know Joey Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to bring the community more much-needed resources. One of which is his Fresh Cut, Fresh Start program, which gives kids free haircuts and school supplies. The 39-year-old KC native feels his work through the organization is a culmination of his love of the community and his faith.
“The secret is always God. Before our meetings, we always pray. I wanted to make a difference in my community, and it is a chance for me to do God’s work. It is a blessing that I can feed people physically, but I am thankful that we get to feed people spiritually,” says Thomas.
He began working with church and community leaders to draw resources from every corner of the metro.. With the main focus starting 15 years ago to physically feed people, the event has grown into an opportunity to bring resources that will connect with people on a spiritual and mental level.
“When we first started, there was a big concentration placed on body and spirit, but now we see the importance of focusing on the mind. We have a situation in our community with people dealing with their mental illness and awareness of trying to tackle that. We are bringing those resources, so they know they aren’t doing it alone,” says Thomas.
Thomas wanted to do something new and meaningful for the Tuesday Turkey drive, and teamed with Blue Symphony, a Kansas City web development company, and the Kansas City Health Department to bring in much-needed mental health resources.
“I have been supporting Joey through the years with some of the projects and initiatives he has had over the years and has done such a great job giving back to the community,” says Ken Lumpkins, the marketing and creative director for Blue Symphony. The day after Turkey Drive Tuesday was designated as Win Wednesday by the collective to encourage people to win through sound mental health practices.
The campaign, he said, is all about “placing a focus on people who are in need and saying, let’s change the narrative and wanting people to win by addressing mental health. I don’t think mental health has been given enough focus collectively.”
As a KC native Lumpkins has seen the awareness of the importance of mental health finally being taken more seriously. People tend to feel depressed and anxious due to stressors from the holiday season, making this Thanksgiving a vital time for community outreach. As the days get shorter and colder, seasonal affective disorder can cause people’s moods to take a downward dip.
“This is a time when I think people need these services the most, the impact of missing loved ones who aren’t around for those special occasions, along with the added stress of the holidays. People who can’t afford food for Thanksgiving or presents for Christmas and the constant demand of it all,” he says.
This year’s turkey drive will see the addition of the talented Krizz Kaliko partnering with the initiative to help push the importance of mental health.
“I have always talked about my life and sang about my life, and it ends up helping these people,” Kaliko, aka Samuel Watson IV, previously told The Star. “The biggest comment I get at meet-and-greets is how I saved their life because they were going to commit suicide. I have been at the brink of suicide at numerous occasions. So I go out and talk about what helps me.”
Mental health has always been a major facet of his music, and he will be premiering a new song that will go over the topic of mental health and coping.
“We reached out to Krizz Kaliko because we are aware of his struggles and battles with mental health and how he is still able to succeed facing these issues,” says Lumpkins. “We wanted to bring together people like him and Joey who can successfully deliver the message in a way people will connect with.”
Kaliko will lead a Q&A at the Wednesday event, focusing on tools for coping with anxiety.
Since his first goal of 25 turkeys, Thomas’ organization was raising upwards of 1,000 turkeys each drive. Because of COVID-19, donations have dropped, but Thomas is confident that numbers will bounce back. He is, however, aware that the economy will mean the need has grown.
“This will be a year we will see a lot of first-time faces in the line for people who are in need. Across America, people are struggling. We are seeing the prices rise. We are seeing turkey prices that range from $25 to $45, and it will be a difficult year, but we are always confident that the community will come through for us,” he says.
As the event has grown and become a longstanding tradition within the urban core, Thomas hopes that other events which have the same foundation will collaborate, with new organizations and community leaders wanting to make their own turkey drive events.
“Fifteen years ago, a barber giving away free turkeys it was something new. Now it is something widespread to see several barbershops doing similar events. If we can all come together and create some synergy, we can do much good. People need more than just a turkey once a season. I would just love to see more of a unified effort during this time of year,” he says.
In addition to Blue Symphony and Krizz Kaliko, the drive will also be joining forces with the Kansas City Royals and the Urban Youth Academy.
How to participate
To donate a turkey: The Turkey Tuesday Drive collection will be 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy, 1622 E. 17th Terrace.
To get a turkey: The needy can pick up turkeys, canned goods and other necessities from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 23 at the same location. Vendors and Krizz Kaliko will be on hand. Registration is required at knowjoeyfoundation.org.