Wheeler: Raleigh woman shares a year of hugs

Staff columnist - bwheeler@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2012 

HUGS.031312.TI

Melinda Schmitt hugs Kevin Cuevas, manager at Andy's Burgers Shakes & Fries in Holly Springs. Schmitt has been trying to "spread joy and love through hugs" and writes about her experience on her blog "My Year of Hugs."

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • Find Melinda Schmitt’s blog about her yearlong mission to spread kindness at myyearofhugs.com. Or follow her on Twitter @raleighmelinda.

    Excerpts:

    Day 329: I wish I had some way of capturing the look on some people’s faces when I ask them for a hug. At Walmart today, I was helped by a cashier who barely looked at me. She had been talking with another employee. Maybe she was annoyed I interrupted their conversation, maybe she was having a bad day or maybe she was just bored. I only know that I almost walked away without asking for a hug. It’s times like these that I often get my best hugs. This was no disappointment.

    When I asked her for a hug, she had that skeptical look. Almost in slow motion that skeptical look turned into a smile. This was no ordinary smile. It was the smile of gratitude, awe and amazement. A smile that conveyed I was sent specifically to her for this. No camera could ever capture this kind of smile. It is reserved for spontaneous moments of love. I believe that hug was magic.
  • When: 1 p.m. April 7
    Where: Smith’s Nursery, 443 Sanders Road, Benson; 934-1700
    What: Easter Egg Hunt, with fundraiser for Harper Doughtie, 5, a Tarboro girl diagnosed in September with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Melinda Schmitt, blogger at myyearofhugs.com, will offer free hugs and accept donations for cards that participants can send to support Harper and her family.

For 339 days now, Melinda Schmitt has been wrapping her community within her slim arms, hoping to create connections and spread kindness through her touch.

Gas station attendants, Walmart cashiers, garbage-dump workers, South Raleigh neighbors, veterinarian assistants, pediatric nurses, Kroger baggers, church attendees – the auburn-haired woman with expressive brown eyes has politely asked them all: “May I hug you?”

Only four or five people have declined. To the scores who have said yes, Schmitt hopes her gesture conveyed that they are important, that they matter, that they have worth.

“My motive is always gratitude,” said Schmitt, 36, a Connecticut native who stays at home with her boys, 5 and 2. “I’m always grateful for that person being in my life at that moment. They’ve done something for me or had a conversation with me. Gratitude is a very powerful emotion.”

Fewer than 30 days remain in what Schmitt christened last April 13 as her Year of Hugs, born of a desire to set off a chain reaction of love in an increasingly divisive world. She chronicles her hug happenings on her blog at myyearofhugs.com so that others can share her joy – and replicate it.

Five years ago, Schmitt found herself living in a Garner-area subdivision of similar transplants, just a few of the more than 400,000 people who arrived in the Triangle in the last decade or so. Among them she made friends, but not huggy ones, and she missed her family members and the comfort of their touches.

The lack of contact left her empty. She wondered how many others, like her, needed a fill-up.

“I think all of us forget at some point that we’re all human beings, we all crave the same things, we all crave love and acceptance,” said Schmitt, holding her knees to her chest as she sat her couch. “A hug is a great way of saying ‘I love and accept you.’ And it’s a great way of not feeling so lonely.”

On Day One, she began with offering a hug to her therapist – which should reveal that Schmitt’s blog posts are not uniformly love and light. The honest and vulnerable offerings show a woman struggling with fear of rejection, angst about how people perceive her, anxiety over parenting.

In short, fears that inhabit far too many of our minds. Opening herself to rejection by opening her arms to strangers has been transformative for Schmitt.

“I realized by putting myself out there that we all have the same challenges and fears and desires,” she said. “We live in a society where we think so much and base our lives so much on what other people think of us that we’re afraid to do the things we really feel inside.”

By Day 100, her hug tally had reached 1,000, one of the most memorable given to a waste-disposal worker.

“I asked for a hug,” said Schmitt, apologizing for taking a second to wipe tears. “As I was walking away, I heard her say, ‘That’s the first hug I’ve gotten in a long time.’ I felt so sad for her but so blessed that I was able to do that for her.”

What hugs do, studies show, is release oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust. They also reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

“Touch connects you to other people,” Schmitt said. “It’s that connection that keeps us safe, grounded and loved – and keeps the world from falling apart.”

In 2000, Schmitt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, though she has been largely symptom-free for nearly a decade. To help with medical bills, a friend orchestrated a fundraiser for her – a gesture Schmitt always wanted to pay forward.

On April 7, she will host Hugs for Harper to raise money for the family of a 5-year-old Tarboro girl diagnosed with leukemia in September. She knows about the child only from a friend of a friend.

“My heart has been breaking for her mother,” Schmitt said. “Her daughter is the same age as my oldest. I know what the medical costs were like for me with MS. I can’t imagine trying to come up with the money and trying to care for your child and do it all sanely.”

If it weren’t for the fundraiser, Schmitt wouldn’t necessarily be advertising her hug-hunting. Publicity could damage the dynamics, and she wants her embraces coming from a pure place, from her heart.

On Day 327, she exhorted blog readers to ponder what is unfinished in their lives and asked: Is today a good day to die?

“I want to be remembered after I die,” she says. “I want to be remembered as, ‘She was kind and she loved people and she hugged people.’ ”

How different our communities would be if that were the legacy we all craved – a legacy of love.

bwheeler@newsoberver.com or 919-829-4825

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