LINCOLN PARK — Over the last seven years, 20-year-old professional free hugger David Melia has given out more than 50,000 hugs.
The DePaul University sophomore counts each one with a click on a counter that's attached to his belt loop at all times.
He makes sure to always have a "free hugs" T-shirt or patch on his clothing whenever he's out.
When Melia walks through the Lincoln Park campus, other students and staff stop him and immediately go in for a hug without question.
"The experience of a hug is really something that is profound," he said. "Maybe they are having a bad day, but that moment of me hugging them brightens the rest of their day."
Since his first experience with "free hugging" as a 14-year-old when he saw a group giving out hugs outside the movie theater, Melia has written a book and traveled to 13 cities on a summer free hugs tour. Chicago and Denver give the best hugs, he said.
Melia said he gave out about 2,500 hugs on that tour last summer and slept on a lot of couches and met a lot of crazy people.
He admits he was "creeped out" the first time he ran into free huggers outside a "Harry Potter" screening in 2007, but that changed quickly.
At the time, he was living in North Lawndale and decided the next day he was going to head Downtown to Michigan Avenue with the words "Free Hugs" duct-taped on his white T-shirt.
"It was a little bit scary at first because you are out there in the open and vulnerable," Melia said. "There are some people who think you are crazy, but there are those people who really appreciate the hug and really need it to get through their day."
The moment that solidified his dedication to free hugs came during his sophomore year at Walter Payton College Prep.
Melia was walking by the Art Institute of Chicago along Michigan Avenue, one of his preferred locations to give out hugs, when he gave an art student a hug.
Melia himself was depressed about school at the time.
"I gave her a hug, and she told me, 'Keep it up, you are saving lives,'" Melia said. "I walked away and that just stuck in my head and gave me energy to work out what do I really want to do with my life."
Melia has continued giving out free hugs every day since his first experience with them in 2007 and averages about 50 a day.
His one-day high was 1,000 during a conference in Downstate Urbana.
His goal is to simply brighten someone's day and fulfill the innate need for human contact.
One story that sticks out dates back to the summer of 2010: He was hugging on Michigan Avenue, and a woman approached him.
Debbie Paulding was visiting Chicago from Atlanta, and while hitting up the tourist hot spots Downtown, felt an unexplained shooting pain in her abdomen.
She walked over to Melia and asked him for a hug. She didn't know what else to do.
"He just held me for a minute, just nice and comfortably kind of paternally, and the anxiety all left," Paulding said. "Once the anxiety was gone, a big chunk of the pain went away. It was just the most amazing thing."
Paulding, 52, was considering going to a hospital and didn't know what to do before she saw the free hugs sign.
"I thought it's about the only option I have at this point," Paulding said. "It turned out it was great."
It was so great, that she contacted Melia when she got back to Atlanta with the help of the business card that he gives to most people he hugs. The two remain in touch.
She even offered to go with him to give out hugs in Atlanta during his summer free hugs tour in 2013, but Melia's trip was cut short by a lack of funding.
"You've got to pass it on," Paulding said. "As much good as it did me, you never know if someone is suicidal or in pain."
Melia majors in philosophy and entrepreneurship at DePaul and plans to continue giving free hugs and spreading good vibes for the rest of his life.
He has sold about 200 copies of his book "Free Hugs: It's More Than a Campaign — It's a Lifestyle," which helped finance his summer tour.
The book outlines Melia's story and gives advice on free-hugging etiquette, including 52 pages depicting and describing the different kinds of hugs, and explains the importance of the idea of free hugs.
The hugs have helped Melia make friends on campus, like 19-year-old Ben Rios, who first met Melia through a hug.
"I thought he was the funniest guy in the world. He calls himself a professional hugger," Rios said. "People say hugging is a skill. This guy gives a real good hug. No joke."