Peyton Mills is captain of the Timberline football team. He’s a big guy and maybe not one you’d immediately peg for wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Free hugs.”
But there he is, with a handful of classmates in Grove Plaza — and if the T-shirt isn’t enough, he’s waving a sign that repeats the offer, with even bigger type. It’s hard not to miss. His arm is in a sling, courtesy of a football practice injury?
“You should say you’ve given so many hugs that you wore out your arm,” teased classmate Keaton Poe.
“Yeah. That was it. All the hugs. They get to the arm,” Mills joked back.
Across the Grove, a random passer-by spreads out her arms and Mills is ready. Flinging his sign to the ground, he meets her halfway in a big one-arm bear hug. And then she walks on; she’s grinning. So is Mills. He retrieves his sign and scans the crowd for the next taker.
“A chain reaction,” he offers as his hope. “They’ll go home and give their family a hug and that will spread ... throughout Boise and everybody will start hugging each other just randomly on the street. Yeah.”
Poe also has a sign, although his reads, “12 hugs a day for growth.” For him it’s not important for people to know who his classmates are or where they come from or why they’re there. “Or anything about us. It’s just the idea of what we’re doing — (that’s) what we want them to remember.”
‘You get really surprised’
Last spring, a leadership class at Timberline High School, called Wolf Connection, began planning for its annual “Appreciation Week.” Friday of that week was an all-school “Free Hug Friday,” and Poe, then a junior, decided to drum up enthusiasm for the day. He enlisted a handful of students to go to Grove Plaza to practice giving out hugs and make a promotional video.
The night was way more than they anticipated.
“We all agreed this was something that we’ve never experienced in our lives,” Poe says. “(It was) so amazing that we (decided we) should just keep on doing it.”
Every other Saturday, give or take, through the summer and fall, a handful of Wolf Connection students would hang out with their T-shirts, their signs and their enthusiasm.
Mills opined that he was a pretty good hugger from all the practice he had in Wolf Connection class, and from life in general. The Grove was something different.
“It really takes you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “You get really surprised by all the hugs that you get. I can say I’m probably a professional now. Probably the best in Boise.”
He grins. He knows he’s got competition.
‘Beautiful thing to see’
There’s discussion about whether the students are giving or getting hugs, although it might be merely semantics.
“When I hug others, then I feel good and they feel good and it just spreads the positivity,” says senior Joseph Knebel, 17. “Everyone feels good and life is good.”
Lacey Jensen, 17: “Hugs create so much happiness. It’s really nice to get so many in one night in one place.”
Samuel Rose, 18: “It’s just a bright feeling. It kinds of warms up the entire area.”
It’s hard not to be scooped up in the students’ energy. Passers-by might stop for one hug and end up hugging all the students.
Because the best kind of hugs are … “group hugs,” said Keaton.
Samuel Rose, now a Boise State student, waxes eloquent. “When you’re hugging for at least 20 seconds, it releases oxytocin in the body and that allows you to calm down a little bit and allows you to get closer with one another,” he says. “So it’s about bringing the community close to one another.
“Sometimes we’ll have people come and hug each other that aren’t even part of our group — and it’s just a beautiful thing to see.”
Rose graduated last year and he joins his friends at The Grove as often as he can. But wait a minute — a 20-second hug?
“They’re pretty rare,” he admits. “But it happens. They’re so great.”
‘Nobody should feel alone’
Poe, the original organizer, is not a naturally effusive extrovert. Add strangers to the mix and free hugs for anyone was a challenge for him.
“(But it is) helping me feel more comfortable with myself in general,” he says. “It reaffirms the idea that everybody’s connected in one way or the other. I like to look at life that way: Nobody’s just alone. And nobody should feel alone.”
However, sometimes it’s easy to get lost, even among lots of people.
“Much as I love Boise and the efforts a lot of people have put into making it feel like a tight community,” he says, “I really feel like with the rate at which it’s growing, it’s losing that feeling really quickly.”
After their evenings of giving out hugs, however, his view has shifted. “It revived that feeling of community,” he says. “It made us feel as though we were part of everything that was going on. We want other people to feel the same way.”
‘Kindness brings us closer’
Giving out free hugs is not a Timberline-exclusive idea.
Ken Nwadike, a Californian who missed the qualifying time for the 2014 Boston Marathon by 23 seconds, made viral history by attending the marathon anyway and standing on the course with his T-shirt, his “free hugs” sign and a video camera.
“That’s what kind of sparked (us),” says Rose. Nwadike’s video planted a seed in Wolf Connection students, and it’s kind of an inspiration for how big they might dream.
“I mean,” says Rose, “if that video can reach us, why can’t our videos reach them? … People joining in in other places and parts of the world — I think we could just all group together and give out hugs.”
And then there’s the question of what is a hug? Such a little thing. Such an inconsequential thing, compared with the weight of the world. And yet — maybe not.
“I feel like hugs can be a very important stop to people sharing with each other,” says Mills. “Kindness brings us closer together and it makes the community feel closer.
“Hugs, even though seeming like a small thing, are a really huge part of that human interaction that we don’t always get with people, especially strangers. …
“I would like to think that hugs are a (really) big deal.”
Across the plaza, a woman gets a hug from Rose. “What are the hugs for?” she asks.
“You,” he replies.
Want a free hug?
The Timberline Wolf Connection students and friends are taking a winter break. Free hugs will resume in the spring.