Original article by Katie Howell at the Technician. Graphic by Marlowe Henderson.
On Thursday afternoons, dozens of volunteers meet near Stafford Commons to generate a hub for free hugs and meaningful conversations. This group of volunteers is known as Free Moms, and their goal is to comfort and support students in the form of hugs and fresh baked goods every Thursday from 1-4 p.m.
Coordinator Nancy Nelson said she was struck with the inspiration for Free Moms in early 2019. With four kids of her own and one NC State graduate, she felt the overwhelming sense that she had love to give to college students on campus. She set up camp near Talley by herself on a Thursday in February 2019.
Nelson said the initial event focused on showing students someone was in their corner and there to support them.
“One of the things I really long for is that this would connect with the kids who are struggling the most and that they would be drawn every week to it,” Nelson said. “That way, they could get a hug. These mamas will do in a pinch.”
The mission gained traction and expanded to include free love in the form of fresh baked goods, dogs, dads and grandparents. Free Moms has received national attention and amassed 80 volunteers thus far.
Due to its rapid, recent growth, Nelson said she had faced some difficulty when trying to organize the event. However, many volunteers have contributed in their own unique ways via advertising, donating and coordinating. One mom started a GroupMe chat called “Free Mom Thursday,” which Nelson encourages students to join.
“I have people behind the scenes who are helping me to build this airplane in the air,” Nelson said. “I’m not that business person, but they have been helping me to create the SignUpGenius. Somebody else has created a Google Doc for our database. In fact, we are turning into a nonprofit, and now another mom has offered to do free, pro-bono filings for the 501c3.”
Despite Free Moms’ growing popularity, Nelson said she still makes it a priority to get to know students on a personal level and to be able to know them by name.
“There was one girl who was from way out west and she asked us why we were doing this,” Nelson said. “We told her it’s really unconditional love. We just want to shift the atmosphere at this school with unconditional love. Then she started crying and she said ‘I just miss my family so much.’ She just kept saying over and over again, ‘Do you have any idea how important this is?’”
She wasn’t the only one touched by Free Moms’ mission.
Julia Storch, a fourth-year studying chemistry, said she discovered Free Moms through Yik Yak. Storch said Free Moms found her at the right time last semester when she could really use a hug.
“I use Yik Yak and people were talking about Free Moms being out here today, … and I actually didn’t know they were a thing,” Storch said. “I was really sad at the time and they do the whole free hug thing, so it was a big comfort for me.”
Nelson said the volunteers had done an incredible job of reaching out. Even those who were timid when first joining the group eventually warmed up and really got to connect with the students.
“It’s easy to love people in your comfort zone, but getting outside your comfort zone is where God can really show up,” Nelson said. “That’s what we see. When you are doing the unconditional love thing, it changes you and it also changes [the students].”