Dressed in a black T-shirt with white lettering that read “FREE HUGS,” Ken Nwadike Jr. welcomed students in the Oval Theater to the idea of kindness and spreading love rather than hate.
Nwadike spoke to students and the community on Wednesday in an effort to share his story of how he became known as “the free hugs guy.”
Growing up in a homeless shelter in California, Nwadike faced many bullies that forced him to become isolated, shy and distant from others.
It wasn’t until a track coach stopped him and told him to join the team that he grew out of his shell. Nwadike joined and began to run as a part of the team. He would take left behind clothing and shoes to allow himself to take part in the sport. Track became his first sense of belonging.
Later, Nwadike wanted to allow other homeless children to find the same sense in running that he did. With this, he created the Hollywood Half Marathon held every April. The children told him it would never happen.
“Alright, cool I will reach out to the media,” Nwadike said to the children. “I will see if I share my story, if that would help generate some buzz for this event.”
After some exposure, celebrities such as Andrea Barber (Kimmy Gibbler from Full House) began to take part in the event. The Hollywood Half Marathon wound up having over 10,000 attendees and they were able to raise over $1 million the first year.
“I was able to shut down Hollywood boulevard,” Nwadike said.
Nwadike’s presentation dealt with various pictures and videos from his experiences. This included footage from various rallies and his start of the “Free Hugs” campaign at the Boston Marathon.
According to Nwadike, the Boston Marathon was like the Super Bowl where he would get together with people and watch people run. Four years ago he was watching as the bombs went off. He was devastated.
“I knew I needed to have some bold standard of solidarity for the people that lost their lives and limbs at the Boston Marathon,” Nwadike said. “I told the kids at the shelter, ‘let’s create a campaign that’s going to get people to come out and run the Boston Marathon rather than being scared or afraid.’”
Originally, Nwadike planned on running the marathon. However, he needed to qualify with a time of three hours and five minutes. He missed the qualifying time twice by 23 seconds on the first attempt and 19 seconds on the second attempt.
“Because I couldn’t reach the qualifying time, what do you guys think if I print ‘Free Hugs’ on a T-shirt and go out there and because of the bombings that happened the year before,” Nwadike said to the kids. “What if I just go out there and show people how we respond to these acts of hate and violence.”
The kids from the shelter laughed at Nwadike. They thought nobody would take him up on his offer. Nwadike went to the marathon with a camera and came back to prove them wrong.
“The most beautiful thing for me about being there, it was a moment for me to realize that politics didn’t matter in that moment, race didn’t matter, gender, financial status, none of that mattered,” Nwadike said. “It was just a moment for human beings, strangers to interact with one another.”
After this event, Nwadike decided that he needed to spread this form of love in a more volatile setting such as riots dealing with political issues as a way to create positive and peaceful conversations. This is where he began to form relationships with others through his mission, including meeting the godfather to his children while he was talking to protesters and getting a positive response.
Nwadike referenced the particular riot where he got protesters to hear him out and have a conversation. He ran into a contradicting situation when a police officer approached him at one of the protests he attended where he embraced both the officer and the protesters marching.
“‘Hey man do I get one of those hugs?’ the police officer said. This is not going to look good, I feel like I’m probably going to get attacked,” Nwadike said. “But, my shirt says ‘Free Hugs.’ That invite is open for everyone, despite the fact there is literally a riot going on right now. I’ve got to hug this guy.”
Nwadike then defended himself to both sides of the issue explaining that everyone involved was human. His point was to make people see that there is a peaceful way to approach hard conversations.
He explained that he encourages people to get to know one another in an effort to hear each other’s stories. He said this is the way to create change. Nwadike decided to test this with children who normally had a negative outlook on police officers.
“Love will save the world,” Nwadike said.