Deals

How DIYers PJ & Thomas Found Family, Fatherhood, and a Farm in Rural Tennessee 

Last Update: June 7, 2024

Rural Tennessee may not seem like the first place you’d look for television or online success, but for PJ and Thomas McKay, sticking to their roots has always served them best.

The couple grew up in the same small hometown in southeastern Tennessee, just outside of Chattanooga. After meeting through mutual friends (and, like many relationships that began in the early aughts, exchanging a few MySpace messages), they eventually began dating. In 2014, the couple got married, and shortly after, they decided to buy the house that Thomas grew up in with hopes of renovating it into a dream home for their future family. 

The couple documented their renovation progress on their blog, YouTube channel, and Instagram under the handle The Property Lovers. “Back in 2015, there weren’t as many gay couple accounts sharing their lives,” Thomas says. “We live in a really small town in Tennessee, and so it really was just us posting pictures of ourselves and our house and sharing our little corner of life. We had no idea that you could even make a career out of social media at the time, or at least not unless you were in LA or New York.” Their little corner of life turned out to be inspiring to many, and eventually caught the attention of HGTV — and led to their own TV show, Down to the Studs, which followed the couple as they restored dilapidated homes in the area. 

A few years later, their television days propelled PJ and Thomas into a full-fledged career as content creators. This stability and creative freedom enabled them to embark on their next adventure: becoming foster parents to three young siblings, at the time aged 4, 2, and 18 months. 

When we caught up with PJ and Thomas, they welcomed us virtually into their warm, loving home in Tennessee. We talked about their most recent renovation adventures, how they stay healthy, balanced, and well-fed amidst the chaos of raising three young children, and how having a family has changed how they celebrate Pride Month — in all the best ways. 

Renovating a Family Home While Starting a Family of Their Own 

“We picked out our children’s names a couple of weeks into dating,” Thomas laughs. “We just knew that we wanted a family.” 

When it came time to actually start planning what that family would look like, the couple considered all their options. “We went back and forth on what route we wanted to take, whether that was surrogacy, private adoption, or foster care,” Thomas remembers. “We just kept coming back to foster care.” 

In the summer of 2019, the couple began taking the required classes to become foster parents. While their home wasn’t open for foster placements at the time, their foster dream took form much sooner than expected. “Our caseworker texted us and said that she had a sibling group of three who desperately needed a home, and we were like, OK, let’s do it,” PJ remembers. Their case worker expedited the opening of their home by finalizing their home study and all the necessary documents needed to take on a foster placement.

Two days later, the kids moved in. “It was a lot at first,” Thomas says. “We even second guessed ourselves, because we were in way over our heads. It’s now almost funny to think about, because it’s so normal, and they’re so wonderful.”

Aside from learning to be first-time parents to three children, PJ and Thomas also had to learn to navigate the ins and outs of the foster care system. “It’s an emotional roller coaster,” PJ says. “You have a lot of unanswered questions when you’re doing foster care. You kind of have to say, We’re put in the position that we are with the kids, and we can better their lives for as much time as we have them.”

The couple quickly couldn’t imagine life without the children, who now felt like their own, so they decided to begin the process to adopt them and make it official. After lots of court visits, caseworkers, adoption paperwork, and other complexities, the adoption went through, and they could breathe a sigh of relief as they started to create new traditions together as a family. “We fought hard for them,” PJ says.

Lessons in Farming

“Thomas and I had different childhoods,” PJ says. “He grew up in the city part of our town, so there’s not a lot of land. I grew up on a 200-acre farm, so farming has always been a big passion of mine.” 

In the past couple of years, PJ and Thomas purchased a working farm where they could start to raise livestock, grow their own vegetables, and teach their children about the outdoors in the way that PJ experienced growing up. “My grandmother had a garden, and every year she canned vegetables and made jams and jellies,” he remembers. “It was always really important for me that we ended up with some type of farm if we were to have kids.”

After extensive work and renovations on the farm, 2023 was the first year the family was able to see the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. “The kids were excited because we planted tomatoes last year, and then we made homemade spaghetti sauce and salsa with the tomatoes,” PJ says. 

The couple also loves that the farm has helped them to tap into a lifestyle that’s less wasteful and more in tune with nature. They try not to waste any food whatsoever, and the circular nature of the farm helps them to get closer to that goal. They’re able to feed their eggshells to their chickens to help strengthen the shells of the eggs they lay, feed food scraps to the pigs, and they compost any leftover food scraps to use as fertilizer in their garden. Their next phase of farm renovations involves planting a much larger garden and harvesting fruit from their blackberry bushes, pear trees, and apple trees. 

“When we’re out there, it really is our happy place,” Thomas says. “It’s like our little slice of heaven. Seeing the kids have fun and run in the woods — we don’t see them for hours, and they’re just climbing trees and playing tag and going on adventures. We can’t give them that life here in town. All that freedom is so valuable and irreplaceable, so I love that we can give that to our kids.” 

Taking Pride in Family 

To PJ and Thomas, Pride Month is about the journey toward creating a family that felt authentic to them. While they both took slightly different paths and their individual experiences are wholly unique, in the end, they found one another and built a loving home for their family of five (and many more for others).

“I think what Pride means to us in this season of life is family,” Thomas says. “We knew we wanted a family, but growing up, especially in our little town in Tennessee, that just wasn’t a possibility. It literally wasn’t legal. Us living our life like an American couple with our children, taking them to school every day, taking them to basketball practice, making dinner, going to the farm… that’s what Pride means. It’s something that we never thought we would have, and now it’s our everyday.”

“For me, I think back to a time in my life when somebody would say, What’s your girlfriend’s name? and I did not have the pride that I feel now,” PJ says. “Now, when somebody sees my wedding band and they’ll ask about my wife, I’m excited to say, I’m not married to a woman. My husband’s name is Thomas and we have three kids. When I was younger, I didn’t even know that it was possible to be in this type of relationship, to be this happy. I couldn’t even imagine how good life would be. I’m proud of [my husband] and proud of our family and proud of the life that we’ve created.”

PJ & Thomas’s Favorite Family-Friendly Homemade Red Sauce Pasta with Ground Beef 

“We always eat together, and every night at dinner, we do our ‘keep and delete’ for the day,” PJ says. “Everybody goes around and says their favorite thing about the day, and then they’ll save their least favorite thing about the day. The kids always get so excited about it; it’s kind of like a dinnertime ritual.” 

Often, this dinnertime ritual happens over heaping plates of pasta. “We’re big pasta eaters in this house,” Thomas says. “The kids love pasta, we love pasta, so we probably have pasta twice a week.” This creamy penne with a classic red sauce is a standby in their home, and it’s one that’s sure to bring other families together, too. 

Yield: 6-8 servings
Active time: 20 min
Total time: 30 min

Ingredients:

1 16 oz box of rigatoni or penne  
2 tbsp olive oil
1 white or yellow onion, minced
1 lb ground beef
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp garlic powder 
2 tbsp onion powder
2 tbsp butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup red wine (optional)

Instructions:

Heat a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions.

Add the olive oil to a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes, or until softened. 

Add ground beef, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder to the pot and cook until beef is browned. Place the onion/beef mix into a separate bowl and set aside.

In the same pot, melt the butter and add minced garlic, sautéing until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Pour in crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, then add the beef and onion mixture back to the pot. Season with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer.

Add heavy whipping cream, red wine, and balsamic vinegar. Stir and let simmer for five minutes.

Add the cooked pasta to the pot and gently toss into the sauce mixture.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan, parsley, and a side salad.

Share this article

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

Thrive Market
Support
Diets & Lifestyles
Shop by Category
If you are visually-impaired and having difficulty with our website, call us at 1‑855‑997‑2315

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

© Thrive Market 2024 All rights reserved.