Editor’s note: This is the third in a longstanding annual series in the MDJ spotlighting the county’s best and brightest as they graduate high school.

EAST COBB When Walton High School senior Emory Paul was just a few years younger than he is now, his mother says his gaze was set on becoming a professional basketball player. Now, his dream couldn’t be more different.

The 18-year-old hopes to one day head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Even freshman year, he was convinced and told us that his path was to go to the NBA,” Alison Paul said. “But then something happened sophomore year, and a lightbulb just went off and he had a complete change of heart of where he thought he was supposed to be and what his purpose was.”

Emory Paul runs a nonprofit, Soul Supplies, that provides homeless people in Atlanta with backpacks full of basic necessities — clothes, food and hygiene products — and works to connect them with long-term housing.

The senior said he started the organization in his sophomore year of high school but officially received 501(c)(3) status a year ago. Soul Supplies has raised more than $20,000 to fight homelessness in Atlanta and distributed more than 60,000 supplies.

His organization has partnered with others, including the Arthur Blank Foundation, Whole Foods, Chick-fil-A and Kroger, growing from just him to five staff positions and reaching far beyond his neighborhood for volunteers and donors, Emory Paul said.

The Walton senior said it’s come a long way from the first event, which distributed about 30 backpacks in a park in Atlanta, to monthly events that distribute more than 300 backpacks at one time.

Emory Paul said he was driven to begin his work to help people, but as he delved deeper into issues like homelessness, housing affordability and poverty, he began to realize what he felt he was meant to do.

“As I did this work, I realized that a lot of the issues of homelessness were kind of perpetuated or caused by kind of misguided policies,” he said. “And I saw that charity and nonprofit can only solve one aspect of the issue. I realized that policy change is going to be the major catalyst for change.”

That’s why he says he plans on studying government at Harvard University. He wants to rise to the highest levels possible in the policy-making food chain so he can influence housing policy for the better and “shift the narrative” and stigma surrounding homelessness.

His academic achievements and extracurricular involvement suggest he has the work ethic to do it.

Emory Paul founded and headed the Congressional Club at his school, served as co-president of the Social Studies National Honor Society and as president of the homeless advocacy club Working Together for Change because he wanted to increase youth civic engagement and interest in the importance of government work and policy development.

He also played basketball for the school all years except his senior year, was a member of various honor societies and is expected to graduate with a 4.7 GPA.

Outside of school, Emory Paul serves on the Committee to End Youth Homelessness in Atlanta, as well as on the Homeless and Awareness Strategy Team for Cobb County, and has written for multiple Atlanta publications.

Marco Davila-Robertson taught Emory Paul in AP comparative government and AP government and politics at Walton. Davila-Robertson admitted that any student interested in government and politics, his two passions, would score brownie points with him from the beginning, but he also said Emory Paul was something special.

“He’s a rare combination, because he’s exceptionally intelligent, but at the same time, he has a big heart. Sometimes those things don’t coincide,” Davila-Robertson said, adding that Emory Paul has a rare ability for his age: listening before speaking. “There’s a lot to be gained through listening first before speaking, and it’s something that may seem simple but is much harder to put into practice. ... I think that’s part of the reason for his success.”

Davila-Robertson said Emory Paul always went above and beyond in academics and always exhibited a genuine interest in what he was studying, as well as points of view other than his own.

“It only brought more joy and pride to me when I realized that he was also actively pursuing this in a way that he wished to make some meaningful difference,” he said.

The government teacher said he believes Emory Paul is on the right track to his dream job, and called him a “phenomenal candidate” for future HUD director, one who wants to make a difference, not for publicity, but to change lives.

“I can only see more success for him down the line,” he said. “I’m excited see the kind of impact that he’s going to make because I’m certain it will be a great one.”

Emory Paul’s mom says she’ll miss the energy that her son exudes in his work when he heads to Harvard in the fall. Alison Paul said she couldn’t be more proud and is blown away by all her son has been able to accomplish in his adolescence. She laughed as she admitted the Harvard sticker for her car is already on its way in the mail.

“I have a tremendous amount of pride. He’s worked very hard to juggle all of that. He definitely doesn’t get enough sleep,” she said. “That’s the area I’m hoping he’ll work on in college — getting more sleep. But it’s just really cool to watch your kid have all these goals and passions and then just work tremendously hard to see them all come to fruition.”

As for his nonprofit, Emory Paul says he’s set in motion the necessary handoff to other members of his team who will run the organization while he’s away at school. But, he said, he’ll always be running things in the background and working in person when he can.

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Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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