On a cold fall morning in Atlanta, anyone walking by could hear the buzz of Kali Cunningham’s tattoo needle as he was hard at work.
Cunningham, 34, may just be a tattoo artist to some, but to others, he is the helping hand people never saw coming.
Ten years ago, Cunningham founded Huglife Cares, a nonprofit organization designed to give back to the community. He regularly hosts community cleanups, back to school drives, feed the hungry events, turkey drives, and other events to help Atlantans in need.
Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Cunningham moved to Atlanta in 2000 when the homelessness crisis in both areas was at a critical stage.
“I could see it was just as bad here as it was there,” said Cunningham. “My mom inspired me to start it. She used to be a part of Comcast Cares, and I would go help her and witness first-hand that people really need help.”
“When I was older and after I started tattooing, I got an opportunity to raise some money with the NAACP for their turkey drive and it was a success,” says Cunningham. “I saw how much of an impact I had, so the next year when they wanted me to be a sponsor, I told them the only way I would do it is if they would let me be a partner.”
When Cunningham started Huglife Cares in November 2013, the first event was the Turkey Drive. Huglife Cares now partners with the NAACP to host it annually.
At last year’s Turkey Drive, Cunningham personally purchased 1,000 turkeys and gave them away to people who could not afford a warm Thanksgiving dinner, along with other dinner items.
“Being a popular tattoo artist, I know a lot of people and have a lot of relationships,” said Cunningham. “I used my outlet and resources from that to get people together and give back to help others.”
Huglife Cares receives donations and has sponsors ranging from NFL athletes to other nonprofit organizations. They also have hundreds of volunteers at the events and those numbers continue to grow.
“It was amazing to see how many people came together on a random cold Saturday just to help others, no rewards no incentives,” said Payton Dixon, a volunteer at last year’s Turkey Drive.
Cunningham’s mother passed on January 11, 2022, from her battle with cancer. The turkey drive has become a memorial to her because she loved helping people, he said.
“The annual turkey drive is the biggest event we do and it’s my favorite. It was my mom’s favorite, too,” said Cunningham.
If you are interested in volunteering or being a sponsor, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Everyday Heroes project is a partnership between Fresh Take Georgia, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other newsrooms in Georgia.