Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Hulum III is a walking, talking happy ending.
By this time next week, he will be in K-Town, running logistics for the sprawling Kaiserslautern military community in Germany. He and his friends — Wanda Bradshaw and Keidra Martin, friends who are like family —had just finished taking Gulfport kids and teens on shopping sprees paid for by Hulum in exchange for essays on the importance of “paying it forward.”
A little over 21 years ago, he was on a much rockier career path. He was living at William Bell Apartments, a low-income development in Gaston Point, a section of Gulfport that at the time had a less-than-stellar reputation.
“You make your mistakes,” he said. “But I was blessed to have a couple of great people from our community to help me out when I did go the wrong way. To show me your life isn’t over and you can start over.”
One of those people was Gulfport track coach Prince Jones, a Mississippi Hall of Famer. The other was former Gulfport High and Harrison Central football coach Ronnie Cuevas.
“They were very instrumental in making sure that we had somewhat of a chance in life by teaching us strong work ethics in sports, by being a part of a team,” Hulum said.
Still, Hulum got into trouble. But his mentors got him a second chance.
“A week later, I joined the Army and never looked back,” he said. “And I always said if I was ever in the position to give back, I will.”
That started when he was stationed in Virginia and working with the YMCA, homeless shelters and disabled veterans.
“What I wanted to do for my own city was not give my time but give my money because so many of our youth today, they need financial resources,” he said.
He had money to spare, but there was one problem. He was in Afghanistan on his sixth combat deployment.
“I called Miss Wanda and said I had an idea because of what we was doing in Afghanistan, giving back to the children of Afghanistan,” he said. “I connected with Miss Wanda and told her what I would like to do. Then I contacted Miss Keidra and told her what I would like to do. And they took the vision and ran with it.”
Bradshaw contacted churches. Martin contacted Harrison Central, Gulfport and West Harrison high schools. And among the three, they came up with the idea of having students write essays.
“We have to teach our kids than nothing in life is free,” he said. “You have to give back.”
He calls today’s society a “push society” where kids aren’t likely to seek out information such as community service on their own.
“You have to push the information out to them,” he said. “That’s what the essays did. They required them to dive down, research the subject: What are you going to give back?”
Bradshaw sent letters to 13 churches.
“The kids who wrote essays were church grounded,” she said. “They work in the community and do good in school.
“What excited me was to hear what they will do when they grow up to pay it forward.”
Martin’s students talked about community and school activities.
“And a lot talked about how they can help their families,” Martin said. “If they were to win, how they would shop not only for themselves but also for their brothers and sisters, their parents and grandparents. I even had some talk about how they would help their friends at school who were less fortunate.”
The next chapter
Hulum has enough time in to retire, but he has no plans to leave the military.
“The military is giving me the financial backing to do what I need to do to help another person,” he said. When he does retire, though, he said he’ll come back home.
In the meantime, Bradshaw and Martin will help him coordinate his next venture: $1,500 scholarships for three students, one each from Harrison Central, West Harrison and Gulfport high.
“It’ll be the same thing, ‘What are you doing to enhance your community?’ ” he said. “Being a great student. Being a great role model. Going to church.”
On Thanksgiving, he had meals catered for needy senior citizens. In all, Bradshaw said, Hulum gave more than $10,000, something he’d be reluctant to talk about if it weren’t for her gentle nudging.
“I thought people needed to hear his story,” she said.
And she said she hopes his story will inspire others.
“I’ve been blessed by God in so many ways in my life,” Hulum said. “I’m not ashamed to say I come from Gaston Point. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in William Bell. I’m not ashamed I was on the opposite side of the law. I’m not ashamed I started out in slow-learning disability classes and had to test my way out.
“Because all of that testifies to where I am now: A college graduate. A sergeant major in the United States Army, one of the top senior logistical non-commissioned officers in the entire United States Army.
“It’s not how you start a race, it’s how you finish.”
That’s his message for kids in Gulfport and all over Mississippi.
“They can do more than people expect them to do.”