JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Bill Bynum's first exposure to a credit union came as a child when he would accompany his grandmother to one based not behind a glass window or in a Main Street storefront, but in the garage of a family friend.
That was in the small mill town of Bynum, N.C., a town named, he said, after the family that owned his ancestors.
It was in that makeshift credit union where Bynum's grandmother got loans for a new washing machine, a house for Bynum's mother and a suit for Bynum to wear to college. It also gave the young Bynum a direction in life — starting his own credit union, one that would focus on people and communities most in need.
"That never left me," he said.
For his 18 years of serving thousands of people in four states heading Jackson's Hope Federal Credit Union, Bynum is this year's winner of the global John P. McNulty Prize. The award is given by The Aspen Institute's Global Leadership Network, a worldwide collective of entrepreneurs dedicated to addressing a social need through their respective enterprises.
What started in 1995 as a credit union based at Jackson's Anderson United Methodist Church has grown into an operation with 15 field offices that's issued more than 7,200 consumer, mortgage and business loans to customers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Its current headquarter is in a modest, one-story building in Jackson.
Bynum, 54, received the award, which includes a $100,000 prize, this past week in New York City.
"It's always good when someone else says your work has value," Bynum said. "It's hard sometimes, when you've been doing this for almost 19, 20 years, to step out of the weeds ... and then, to sit in the same room as (former U.S. Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger and (legendary jazz trumpeter) Wynton Marsalis."
The Global Leadership Network, which Bynum joined in 1998, praised Bynum's work in helping people and communities in areas underserved by or without traditional financial institutions, including some of the nation's poorest areas.
Bynum had helped establish North Carolina's first community development credit union, Self-Help Credit Union, and that organization grew and its concept spread. Hearing former Mississippi Gov. William Winter speak in that state about a society in which, Bynum recalled, "all children should have the right to prosper" led Bynum to view the Magnolia State as a place where a community-focused credit union was needed, given the state's poverty.
He moved to Mississippi in 1994 and started what is now Hope a year later. In its first few years, it was a part-time venture run on a volunteer basis, serving mainly low-income residents. In 2000, the group expanded its reach through partnerships with several faith-based community initiatives involving dozens of churches. Two years later, the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta financial institution became Hope's prime sponsor.
During that time, sensing Hope was "only a piece of the puzzle," the credit union officially linked with other community groups and nonprofits specializing in financial literacy, mortgage assistance and credit counseling.
For four years, Hope accepted deposits for the Mississippi Council on Economic Education's Youth Asset Development Program, in which 300 middle and high school students, mainly in the state's Delta region, make deposits into college-savings accounts. MCEE contributes matching amounts at the end of each school year.
"He's a true leader. He sets the standard," says MCEE president Selena Swartzfager. "They (Hope) are physically present in the communities where the students are. They've been very accommodating to the students."
Bynum felt his credit union could grow and serve more people. What he couldn't predict were the two crucial events that led to Hope growing into what it is today — Hurricane Katrina and the national recession. Both events, in their own ways, forced the state's neediest residents to look for other means of getting loans and other financial help, as a number of banks either were taken offline for a time from the storm or driven under for good by the economic downturn.
The recession's impact left communities like Utica and Edwards without commercial banks, and Hope stepped in to those areas when there was no other option. The downturn saw Hope's number of branches grow from three in 2008 to 15 and the credit union's members swell from 9,000 to 28,000.
Utica Mayor Kenneth Broome wonders what shape his town of roughly 1,000 people would be in had Hope not come after a BancorpSouth branch closed there several years ago. The credit union bought and renovated the bank's old building and now is a permanent part of the town. Broome says 80 percent of the old bank branch's deposits are now Hope deposits.
"It's probably the nicest building we have in town. Hope had a big impact. Utica is a town with a lot of older people who don't have a lot as it is," Broome said, including transportation to drive to Clinton, Byram or Jackson to find another bank.
"Bill's an icon," adds Charles Elliott Jr., president and CEO of the Mississippi Credit Unions Association. "There's no one else like him. His heart and mind are focused on helping people help themselves. He is what a lot of our leaders hope to be."
Bynum says he hasn't decided how he'll use the prize money but said there remain many "bank deserts" in Hope's service area that need the group's help.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com