SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. (USA TODAY) - For all the homeless people who ever have gone unnoticed, Jeffrey Hillman is making up for them.
The 1976 South Plainfield (N.J.) High School graduate is the barefoot homeless man who received a pair of new boots from a New York police officer in a photo that has gone viral. The publicity has led more than 200 South Plainfield classmates to organize the Jeffrey Hillman Survival Fund on Facebook.
"This is not a man who should be homeless," said John Graf Jr., a childhood friend and community organizer. "He was full of life. Everything he did, he did with vitality."
Classmate Robert Hunt added, "And he came from a good family. It just goes to show that it can happen to anyone. Anyone can become homeless."
While thumbing through their high school yearbooks around the dining room table of the home of Hunt and his wife, Sharon Weber Hunt, they and Graf reminisced about the fun they had growing up together. But while Graf and his twin bother, Robert, remained close with the Hunts and several other childhood friends, Hillman went into the Army after graduation and never was heard from again, Graf said.
According to published media reports, Hillman said that he has two children, Nikita, 22, and Jeffrey, 24, but has had little contact with them since a visit three years ago. Hillman also has a brother, Kirk, living in Plainfield, Pa., said Graf, adding that he is trying to get in touch with him, as well as New York City social services for veterans.
"We want to get him the help he needs and raise any funds that are needed to do that," said Graf, who shared mascot duties with Hillman for the South Plainfield High School Tigers.
Hillman also was a varsity basketball player, Graf said, and Ronnie Kuboski, his coach and English teacher, is among the more than 200 who have expressed concern. Kuboski is retired and living in Hillsborough, Graf said.
Classmate Ellen Salerno DeMaio of Middletown alerted Graf about Hillman. After their classmate identified himself in media reports about the viral police photo, Salerno said that she immediately thought of Graf to help because he has worked in social services with the United Way of Somerset County and the Somerset County Mental Health Board.
"I was shocked and dismayed," she said. "He's one of our own. South Plainfield is not that big. I knew we had to do something.
"He is such a great guy, a great basketball player and Tiger mascot, and he had a smile that would knock your socks off," Salerno continued. "I hope he takes the help."