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Free hug team takes the world in a love embrace

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Cathy Dobson

Some look away. A few walk off in another direction, quickly.

But the vast majority of people offered a free hug by Deb Pretty and her team makes eye contact and goes in for a warm embrace.

“We’ve met a lot of friendly people,” says Pretty, a 37-year-old Sarnia mom of five who believes in the positive power of hugs. “One lady stands out because we hugged and she whispered in my ear, ‘You have no idea how much I needed that.’”

Pretty was inspired to offer free hugs to Christmas shoppers after writing an English essay on how disconnected technology is making society.

“Everyone is spending so much time on their phones that we’re losing the ability to interact in person,” she said.

“And I know I’ve had days when things aren’t going right in my life and I just don’t want to talk about it. Then a friend will recognize that, give me a big hug, and I’ll feel so much better.”

Pretty had viewed Internet videos of people offering strangers free hugs and thought she’d try it herself with a team of a dozen friends and family.

Their first attempt at the Lambton Mall drew a wave of goodwill and happy huggers.

Pretty’s team walked the mall dressed in T-shirts that invited shoppers to “Spread the love with a hug” and held signs advertising free hugs.

“We don’t approach people,” she said. “We wait until they come to us.”

That first afternoon, she brought along 300 “Free Hug” coupons to be handed out every time a stranger received a hug, urging them to pass it on. They were gone in an hour.

“When you receive a hug, it tells you that you’re approachable, you’re huggable, you’re lovable,” said Nancy Roy, who is part of the Sarnia hug brigade.

Roy, 41, a personal support worker and mom of four, said she gave out 102 free hugs before she lost count the first hour.

“After three hours I went home emotionally drained,” she said. “I was so pumped through the whole thing and had that great, fuzzy feeling inside that you get from hugs.

“So did my 10-year-old son.”

Just days after the Sarnia huggers’ first hugfest, police fined a Montreal man $101 for offering free hugs to passers-by in a subway station. The fine was later withdrawn and the man was let off with a warning not to offer hugs after passing through the turnstile.

In a society in which strangers are often reluctant to shake hands, does hugging them cross a line?

The Sarnia huggers don’t think so.

“I want people to carry the moment in their hearts and for it to have a ripple effect,” said Pretty.

“I think we have to realize a lot of people suffer in silence through the holidays and a hug can have a big impact for them,” said Roy. “I’ve seen some people brought to tears.”

Pretty’s team has been invited back to Lambton Mall on Dec. 17, and another local business has asked them to provide free hugs at his store.

Pretty says she’s happy to oblige with several Saturdays of hugging, but the team won’t be available on an ongoing basis.

“You don’t want to overdo it,” she said.

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