Student honors friend with free hugs

What could have been a somber day for USF sophomore Jonathon Burroughs ended up as one of his best.

On Nov. 14, three years to the day after the death of his high school friend, Noah Kushner, Burroughs decided to celebrate his life with an act of kindness — a free hug.

Along with Kushner’s mom and sisters, Burroughs stood outside the Marshall Student Center holding a large handmade sign and gave more than 200 hugs in four hours.

“It seemed like an easy idea, a happy idea — harmless, but positive,” Burroughs said. “Honestly, I’ve just had a really good year, so I felt in a good position to honor my friend. It just felt like something he would do.”

The Free Hugs Campaign is a social movement started in 2004 by Australia-native Juan Mann. The intent of the movement is to encourage random selfless acts with the simple goal of making others feel better.

Burroughs met his friend Kushner in their freshman year of the International Baccalaureate program at King High School. Burroughs described being drawn to Kushner’s positive energy and quirkiness.

“He was a white dude with an afro who carried a tackle box around with him, so he was just a marvel to look at. He definitely stuck out like a sore thumb, and I really admired that, so I wanted to meet him,” he said.

Burroughs jokes about a day he was absent and Kushner made a paper cut out of him and carried it around all day in his tackle box — a testament to the unique friendship they shared. 

This friendship came to an abrupt end, however, in their junior year of high school when Kushner committed suicide. 

Burroughs described the Free Hugs initiative as a celebration after coping, a sort of closure for what has been a sore spot over the last few years.

To Burroughs’ surprise, this one-day initiative of handing out hugs — intended as a small tribute — garnered the attention of the entire campus.

One student stopped several times for hugs from Burroughs and bought him a bagel, while another man who also lost a friend to suicide made a point to telling his story and recognizing the nobility in honoring a lost friend. 

USF Wellness was inspired to continue the movement with talks of holding a Free Hugs event during exam week. While Burroughs laughed that he didn’t want to be known as the Free Hugs Guy of exam week, he said he will happily advocate for and take part in any event related to the campaign.

“I think it’s great that people want me to keep doing this or want this to keep happening,” he said. “I’m offering something good and human for free and I just held up the sign and smiled and even if people didn’t want to hug me, they’d smile. You just don’t see that; people don’t walk around with smiles on their faces.”

The day they met on campus to give free hugs was the first day that Burroughs met his friends’ family, but Kushner’s mom said this simple act changed her year. 

“This should have been the saddest day and it was the happiest day,” she told him.