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Free Hugs Campaign Brings Smiles on South Side

By Wendell Hutson | June 8, 2013 5:34pm
 Volunteers for the Happiness Sprinkling Project in Chicago were out and about FRiday, June 7, 2013 on the South Side.
Holding Up Signs of Hope
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CALUMET HEIGHTS — The last thing Ericka Davis expected when she left out of the bank Friday was to be greeted by a stranger holding a sign that read "Go for Peace!"

"She is so bubbly holding that sign telling me God loves me and to have a blessed day," said Davis, 36. "My mind was focused on how I am going to pay these bills this week and she completely caught me off guard, which is not a bad thing but unexpected."

And that's exactly the response Chanel Ellis said she had hoped to get.

"Everyone is so used to people asking them for change or trying to sell them something if they are approached on the street by a stranger. Not today though." Ellis, a Calumet Heights resident. "All I wanted to do was cheer her up and hope that I was able to brighter her day a little bit."

So for an hour Friday afternoon, Ellis joined her Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority sister Fenesha Hubbard at the corner of 87th Street and Stony Island Avenue holding up inspirational signs every 15 minutes including one that read "Free Hugs."

"The mood has been good," Hubbard said. "It's a nice day outside, the weekend is here and people seem relatively in a good mood. Encouraging them with our signs to continue having a good day is just an added gesture."

Bernard Henderson, 47, drove past Hubbard and said when he realized what she was trying to do he pulled over to inquire.

"I was waiting for the light to change and was wondering what this woman was doing smiling and holding up a sign. At first I thought [it was a] car wash until I read her sign, (which read 'You are Loved')," Henderson said. "Then I started thinking, 'What is this woman really up to?" so I pulled over to ask her."

That's when Hubbard gave him a flier filled with encouraging words and brief information about the Anacortis Center for Happiness in Anacortis, Wash. As the Chicago ambassador for what its founder and director described as a social purpose corporation, Laura Lavigen said Hubbard oversees its Happiness Sprinkling Project in Chicago.

On "the first Friday of each month, a group of volunteers stand at a busy intersection for an hour holding signs with words of encouragement and offering friendly hugs," Lavigne said. "I got the idea for this project last year after someone emailed me a picture of people holding up signs looking happy doing it."

The project can also be found in 15 other states and in Canada, according to Lavigne.

Hubbard added that she decided to volunteer for the project in February after attending a business meeting in Portland, Ore.

"The volunteers looked happy as they held up signs. They were smiling and people were smiling back having a good time," Hubbard said. "That's when I realized I could also bring happiness to others if I volunteered, so I did."