Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big hugs have big purpose, too

Bring attention to kids who don't have families

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Stephen de Groot (right) and his team enjoy a group hug Saturday at The Forks. They gave hugs to whoever wanted one to bring attention to kids without families or in care.

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Stephen de Groot (right) and his team enjoy a group hug Saturday at The Forks. They gave hugs to whoever wanted one to bring attention to kids without families or in care.

Kids attract attention when they walk up to perfect strangers in public and ask to give them big hugs.

And that's exactly the point.

At The Forks Saturday, kids who used to be in foster care and group homes banded together for a good cause.

They gave away hundreds of hugs for free. No one showed shock or surprise, probably because publicity placards that said "Free Hugs" gave plenty of heads-up time to passersby.

The effort was part of an annual event sponsored by Voices, a program designed to tug on people's hearts as much as their minds.

"The main purpose is to bring attention to the importance of kids in care and any kids who don't have families," said the adult leader of the effort.

Stephen de Groot runs an organization called Getting to Better. Voices is part of the National Youth in Care Network he supports.

De Groot handed out hugs along with his sons, Brayden, 14, and Ethan, 11.

They were joined by a handful of young adults who grew up in the child-welfare system and some kids who are still in it.

They all headed to Assiniboine Park to give away more hugs Saturday afternoon.

Nobody gets hugs who doesn't want one.

"We always ask if they want a hug; it's about safe consensual contact. The issue with kids in care is they were often touched inappropriately or not touched at all. I believe the answer to that is in healthy consensual touch," de Groot said.

"Nobody's too cool to be get hugged by a perfect stranger," said busker Rob McCaffrey, who put down his guitar case to open up his arms.

One mother and her three-year-old son stopped for a hug, only to fall into conversation about the cause behind it.

"That's awesome," said Zia Duval, as her son, Hunter Duval, face painted up like Spiderman, got hugs all round.

Today at The Forks, hugs give way to a spring market.

Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the market features 32 vendors dispensing farm-fresh goodies, including locally raised meats and homemade jams and preserves.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2014 A7

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