Ken Nwadike has found passion in both running and peace activism, which he combined in order to begin the Free Hugs Project. Inspired to take action against violence after the devastation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Nwadike now uses the Free Hugs Project to spread peace and travels the country to speak on his experiences.
The Free Hugs Project took over Pitt State last week, as Nwadike travelled to PSU to lead a presentation Thursday, Feb. 28, organized by the Gorilla Activities Board (GAB) and spread his passion for peace activism.
“So my overall intent with the project is, even though the message says ‘Free Hugs’ on this shirt, really the driving point home is for people to have the dialogue and discussions that are going to create change, the difficult conversations that most people will try to avoid,” Nwadike said. “It creates kind of a platform for people to say, ‘Let’s talk about things related to race or politics or gender issues and injustices,’ and I think that if people would hear my story … this is not just a guy going out giving hugs …”
Nwadike said that by presenting on his experiences through the Free Hugs Project that it “challenges” people to look at how to handle “intense” situations and to learn to “listen to understand.” Within Nwadike’s presentation, he introduced his life story of growing up in homeless shelters and how it shaped him to later find a passion for running that ultimately led to the beginning of the Free Hugs Project. In addition to this, he also discussed solutions to delivering peace, as he has firsthand experience within violent situations like riots.
“… (Nwadike) was someone we really thought needed to have his message heard here,” said Brittany Worthington, senior in psychology and GAB vice president of operations. “… Really loved his message of love and we just wanted to bring that back to our community here because we love our students …”
Nwadike’s Free Hugs Project first started with running at it’s heart, following the Hollywood Half Marathon, a run Nwadike organized to raise funds and awareness for homeless teenagers held a day before the 2013 Boston Marathon.
“I had a deep connection to the sport of running,” he said. “… For us, it was just so surreal. Here we were less than 24 hours before the bombs went off at their finish line as we’re wrapping up our race at our finish line and we’re thinking, ‘What if that same thing would’ve happened here, how do we respond to that?’ So that was kind of like the beginning of the whole project and then going out saying, ‘I don’t want to continue seeing these acts of terrorism or hate.’ So whenever I can get to a place where it’s happening live … then I go in with this message of love and trying to bring people together …”
Since beginning the Free Hugs Project, Nwadike has also taken to visiting schools with a specific goal in mind through his presentation and “equipping” students.
“… I think just for students to feel inspired by the story, really motivated to when they see something to say something, to have these difficult conversations, to create change …” he said.
Sierra Jones, freshman in pre-nursing, attended the Free Hugs Project presentation and said that Nwadike and his experiences affected her in how she feels she can make a change in the future.
“I really enjoyed it and I’m really happy that we actually have someone out there that’s doing this and I hope he can get more people to do it and help him out more so we aren’t just having one person,” Jones said. “… I think it’s crazy with how much violence is in the world … but at the same time I feel like with his help this will help with in future, get rid of all the violence.”
When not speaking out for peace activism, Nwadike continues his “passion” for running and enjoys spending time with his “large” family at home, which includes five children and his wife.
“When I’m home, we don’t talk about politics, or protests, or riots, or anything, we just try to have as much quality family time as possible,” he said. “And so that’s kind of my escape from all this on a day to day basis. … And then it’s right back into all this, and it’s not always easy. …”
Nwadike said through his experiences in various violent situations while speaking out for peace has allowed him to see how “real” they are.
“When you’re in the midst of it, you feel the tension, you feel the pressure, you feel the pain that other people are experiencing when they’re out there, especially when you have such empathy where you’re trying to understand just through conversations why people feel the way they do, it has made it so real for me,” he said. “And I think that’s what fuels me to keep going out to these things …”