ROCKWOOD – “Everyone deserves a hug.” That’s the message behind Melynnie Kalosza and James Hishon’s “Free Hugs” initiative.
The couple has become a familiar sight around Rockwood, often standing in a parking lot with their “free hugs” sign held high, or sitting in a park leading a community meditation session.
Rockwood is the last stop on their Free Hugs journey around Ontario.
“We started Free Hugs in Keswick,” Kalosza said in a phone interview with the Advertiser. “We were just compelled to make a sign and go stand and show people love,” in an effort to make the world a more communal and compassionate place.
Kalosza said they never pressure people to engage with them – they just wait for people to approach them.
She said they hug people from all walks of life who often say “you brightened my day” or “I really needed this.”
The positive responses motivated the couple to travel with their Free Hugs initiative, taking it as far as Costa Rica, where they carried a second sign reading “abrazos gratis,” Spanish for “free hugs.”
After five months in Costa Rica they headed back to Canada and decided to start their Free Hugs Walk Across Ontario.
“That’s when it turned from something leisurely to a big project,” Kalosza said.
In May of this year they began the walk in Brockville, and then traveled on foot to Merrickville, Smiths Falls, Perth and Carleton Place, carrying a tent and sleeping bags in their traveling packs and spending two or three weeks at each stop.
“We gave everything up, just to do this,” Kalosza said, and they “spent the whole summer spreading love.”
She said every stop on the walk was “always a very positive experience.
“We had no money doing this but our hearts were very full,” she said. “We knew we were helping on a deeper level.”
Though the couple never asked for money during their walk, people often offered them cash or gift cards for coffee or a meal.
“There were times when we didn’t know how we were going to eat and money would show up – a universal power took over for a little while,” Kalosza said.
There were also “times when we didn’t eat at all,” she added.
“It was a challenge to say the least … I think you could say we were in very deep.”
Even when people occasionally shouted, “Get a job,” the couple took it as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the necessity of love. Their response was always “I love you,” Kalosza said.
“We never shout back, because all attack is a call for help. All people need love.”
Kalosza admits “we weren’t doing a job-job, we were out there trying to make connections because some people don’t have that in their everyday life.
“We were in a tent for three months. We endured a lot of thunderstorms, soaking wet clothes, [and] hunger, but it taught us a lot and we were very humbled by the situation.”
Now, Hishon and Kalosza have finished the walk and are taking a pause to ground themselves while staying with Hishon’s mom in Rockwood.
“We are putting our feet down,” Kalosza said, “trying to figure out what’s next.”
Though the walk has ended the free hugs have not, and Kalosza and Hishon head out three times a week with their broad smiles and homemade signs.
“Free hugs will always be part of what we want to do,” Kalosza said, noting they hope it is a step towards a more communal future.
“We are all a community – one giant family. We see a new world where people just help one another and you don’t need money.
“Money doesn’t make us happy, more connection [does],” she said, adding it’s surprising how many people are craving connection.