Like thousands of people in cities all over the world, Kristin Pedemonti spends much of her time on the sidewalk holding a sign. And like many, her sign is cardboard with hand-written letters in faded black marker. It’s a familiar scene. Most people walk by without even noticing her. Others see her and her sign but choose to walk past. But the ones that do stop approach with a smile, and have their lives changed—for the better. Some just for the day. Some for a lifetime.
Why? Because Kristin’s sign isn’t asking for spare change, nor does it say, “Will work for food.” In fact, it doesn’t ask for anything at all. It offers to give something, free of charge, with no strings attached. Kristin’s sign simply reads, “Free Hugs.” And that’s exactly what she gives. Free hugs, to anyone and everyone that wants one.
But it’s not just Kristin’s sign that will surprise you. She isn’t who you expected either. Her offer to give free hugs isn’t a clever ploy to solicit donations. Kristin’s not homeless. In fact, she’s a successful actress, teacher, and cause-focused storyteller who speaks to audiences all over the world. So why does she give away free hugs? To bring more joy into people’s lives. Nothing more. Studies show humans need four hugs a day to maintain a healthy mental and emotional state. You don’t have to look far to see that too many of us aren’t getting our daily minimum. Kristin’s personal mission is to change that.
If you’ve ever been free-hugged by Kristin, you know what a real hug feels like. She doesn’t hug you like a stranger—timidly leaning in with one arm from a respectable distance. Kristin’s hugs are full on. Both arms, a tight squeeze, and she doesn’t stop hugging you until you stop hugging her. That can be 10 to 15 seconds or more, which is an eternity for a hug. After the first 2 or 3 seconds, the uncertainty and awkwardness of hugging a stranger fades. Your muscles relax. Your shoulders fall slightly, and you give in to the hug. A warm, happy feeling comes over you that lasts the rest of the day.
On a busy street corner, Kristin can bring a smile to the hearts of hundreds of people in a single hour. Watching her in action is inspiring. People that stop for a hug leave with a huge grin and a zeal in their stride. But even the ones that just pass through are affected. Some find amusement in her sign and laugh. Others stop and watch—amazed at the humanity of what’s going on in front of them.
The most powerful free hug Kristin ever gave was to a small boy in Paris. The boy and his mother watched her for several minutes as she stood with her sign. They eventually went on their way. But a few minutes later, the boy came running back to her, leaped into her arms and gave her an unabashed Koala bear hug as only a small child can do. The mother came trailing behind, with tears in her eyes. As Kristin put the boy down, she apologized, and asked if she had done something wrong. “Oh, no,” the mother said. She explained that her son was severely autistic and rarely hugged even his own parents. Getting him to accept and express love was a lifelong challenge. Somehow Kristin had helped him take a new step.
Today Kristin organizes Free Hug events wherever she happens to be, whether it’s New York City; Belfast, Ireland; or Jonesborough, Tennessee. It’s not unusual for passersby to quickly fashion their own signs and join the cause. And hugs aren’t the only thing Kristin gives away to strangers. She’s been known to pull out a bottle of soapy water and blow bubbles to soothe a crying baby on a crowded subway. Or don a pair of wings on her back as she walks down the street, or ride a tricycle in Central Park with a superhero costume on—all things to bring joy to everyday moments, for herself, and for others.
Being a source of joy doesn’t take any special skills. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. All it takes is the will to do it, and the guts to share a moment with a stranger. Of course, hugging strangers isn’t for everyone or for everywhere. It’s probably not a good idea for unaccompanied children, or in a dark secluded alley. But with some common sense, just about anyone can give away free hugs. Or blow bubbles. Or ride a trike in a superhero costume. Or whatever it is you want to do to bring joy to those around you. You pick. Just pick something.
And the next time you see someone on the streets holding a cardboard sign, give it a read. Whether you end up putting spare change in a tin cup, or getting a free hug, the life you change might just be your own.
[You can find this and 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. Sign up for my newsletter below to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]