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Free Hug Fridays: Embracing community spirit on BU campus

Posted by Roy Greene  November 18, 2011 11:53 AM

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If you stand there long enough, someone is bound to give in. All it takes is some eye contact, a wayward smile, and an offering of the arms. Eventually, someone will want a hug.

It is a simple action that denotes human connection, but to one group of students, it means so much more.

On a warm Saturday in Marsh Plaza at Boston University, just as the leaves had begun to turn gold, a small gathering of students held up handmade signs to passers-by. But these aren’t signs of protest.

Elena Acuna held hers aloft, imploring the hurrying crowd to stop for a free hug and a brief respite from their busy day.

“We want people to incorporate kindness into their everyday lives,” said Acuna, the president of I Embrace You, a student group at Boston University that focuses on community service and outreach efforts. “A little bit of kindness can go a long way.”

On Free Hug Friday, a weekly event, members of a group called I Embrace You plant themselves in the center of the Boston University campus and offer up some altruism to their fellow citizens. Acuna, a senior art history and advertising double major from New Jersey, stressed the importance of this ritual for the group.

“We are a grass-roots, peace-building organization,” Acuna said of I Embrace You. “We want to make Boston University a more welcoming community.”

Welcoming or not, however, there are some unique challenges to giving out free hugs. For one thing, not everyone is so magnanimous, preferring to remain suspicious instead. There are rules to be followed as well, said Michael Bruffee, another member of the group.

“You don’t force hugs upon anyone,” Bruffee said. “Sometimes there’s a resistance to physical contact. You should only give as much as they give. You want to make eye contact and smile.”

For Bruffee, a few skeptics are worth making other individuals feel more welcome. Bruffee, now a senior cultural anthropology major, decided to join I Embrace You after being on the receiving end of a complimentary hug as a freshman.

“It’s about spreading love and goodwill,” Bruffee said. “I wanted to know, how do I do that? Sometimes you’ll brighten someone’s day and break through the illusion of separation.”

I Embrace You doesn’t just give out free hugs. The students also spend their time working in the Greater Boston community, volunteering for organizations designed to facilitate public service. These initiatives are part of a program the group calls Urban Smiles.

One such program, Cradles to Crayons, provides low-income or homeless children with essential items like clothes and school supplies, according to Liz Farley, a marketing coordinator for the service.

“We always love it when groups collect items,” said Farley. “Most of our material is donated. We need volunteers to make sure [the material] is in good condition.”

Other programs include the dispensing of free cookies, music playing in elevators around campus, and special events featuring guest speakers. I Embrace You has also contributed to community service efforts such as the Prison Books Program and The Home for Little Wanderers.

Like many of her fellow members, senior Natalie Schiera joined the group with the goal of helping those at both her university and in the community. The free hugs played a big part, as well.

“My freshman year I saw them standing out in Marsh Plaza and it brightened my day. I like helping people,” Schiera said between hugs. “While you’re giving back, you’re also being rewarded. It’s an easy way to make your day feel better.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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