‘Sometimes you just need a hug’: Free Moms bring love, support


Jenna Guzman

Free Moms taking a rest after a day of hugging, listening to and interacting with students April 6, 2023.

Jenna Guzman, Editor-in-Chief

When walking across Sanford Mall on a Thursday afternoon, there might be a table and a sign promoting free listening, free treats and free moms and dads. 

Free Moms is a group of volunteers, most of which are parents, who give out snacks, support and hugs to students walking by. The catch? Absolutely nothing. The group does not require students to put down their email, attend any events, donate or follow up with them.

Group photo of all of the parent volunteers with Free Moms. April 6, 2023 (Jenna Guzman)

“There’s no hooks,” said Doug Walton, a “free dad” with the group. “It’s just pure, unconditional love.” 

The group was created by Nancy Nelson and was first introduced at NC State University. Doug Walton, also known as Poppie, said Nelson noticed the “climate” of NC State’s campus due to COVID-19 and overall schoolwork. As a result, she created the group to “do something super practical to be helpful, to be encouraging” and to spread love through simple acts of kindness, such as a hug. 

With five student lives lost to suicide this year at NC State, the App State group wanted to show their support and love to students, and bring the same amount of kindness to Boone.  

“We know that college life, especially now, can be really challenging,” Doug Walton said. “We’re grateful to serve the students of App State with absolutely no agenda and hope we can continue to do this.”

Leslie Walton, one of the “free moms,” said the group gives hugs for people in need of one, such as students who live far from home.

A student embraces “free mom” Barbara Krueger. A free mom is a parent volunteer who offers free hugs to studentS, in addition to other forms of support. April 6, 2023. (Jenna Guzman)

Barbara Krueger, another free mom, said before volunteering, she was hesitant on whether or not the group would be received well. However, she said most of the time students would “just fall into your arms.” After volunteering, she said giving out hugs had become her favorite part.

Krueger said in addition to understanding students who miss home, she understands some students may feel pressure due to school and finals coming up. She said she wants students to feel loved and not feel alone, as well as for students to have a release through what the group has to offer.

“In all my life –  I’m 80, I’m a grandma –  this is probably the most impactful, meaningful thing that I have ever done,” Krueger said.

Along with the free hugs, Leslie Walton said the group is also open to listening to students talk about whatever is on their minds.

“A lot of kids just have things they want to talk about,” Leslie said. “They don’t always need an answer, but they just want someone to listen.” 

The volunteer group stands out on the mall every Thursday from 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. rain or shine. The group started in March and will be on campus until May 4. Leslie Walton said within the first five minutes of the group setting up on their first day, they were “swarmed” with students. 

Krueger said the busiest times for the group are the periods after classes end because “that’s when the volume of the students come.”

“We have been overwhelmed with the response of students that are so grateful and say ‘You know, I haven’t had a hug like this in a long time,’” Doug Walton said. 

Although they will only be present for two more weeks, they have plans to give out goodie bags in light of finals week.

Displayed on their table are snacks of all kinds ready to be picked up by students and passersby. From pineapple upside down cake to brownies to cookies, and from oranges to apples to Ants on a Log, the group has plenty of options for someone looking for a quick bite before class. 

Even though the food is plentiful, it does not come from a store. Leslie Walton said each of the moms are asked to bring two to four dozen homemade goods before each Thursday. 

“We’re only doing homemade goodies because we feel that’s a reflection of who we are,” Leslie Walton said. “We want the students to see that we really care and we want to put something into it.”

Although some who come by simply grab a snack and leave, Leslie Walton said others stay for a while and “just enjoy being part of it.”

Heidi Hayslip gives a free hug to a student. (Jenna Guzman)

With more Free Moms groups appearing on campuses around the state, Leslie Walton said a community has formed. She said she’s heard of students going home and meeting with friends from other colleges, and when they bring up the Free Moms at their campus, the App State student goes: “They just started that at App State.”

“It’s kind of creating a community of friends throughout the college system here in North Carolina,” Leslie Walton said. 

Some volunteers heard about this opportunity through word of mouth. 

Heidi Hayslip was a first time “free mom.” Her first time volunteering with the group was April 6. After hearing about this group she said she wanted to try it. She also brought five friends with her because she thinks “it’s the coolest thing.”

Doug Walton said this semester’s turnout has “exceeded” their expectations. With that, the group is “super pumped” and intends on bringing even more kindness and sweets in the fall.

“Sometimes you just need a hug,” Hayslip said.  

Doug Walton said the group is open to hearing student feedback and wants to bring even more to the table for next year. The group plans to start bringing dogs with them as well as have a birthday sash and song prepared for whenever it is a student’s birthday.

“We’re just trying to provide a little bit of home here on campus,” Leslie Walton said.