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By Taylor S. Rousseau

Drea Parker takes to the streets of downtown to offer perfect strangers a free hug whenever an event with the promise of a crowd presents itself. This past weekend’s ‘Rock the Block’ music festival offered such a crowd. As bands performed and the smell of jerked chicken wafted through the air, Parker and a small group of individuals wandered the streets equipped with paper signs advertising “Free Hugs.”

With wide smiles, Parker and friends slowly made their way through the thin crowd of people, laughing and swaying to the festival music. Occasionally, someone would walk up to the group on their own and hug each of the sign holders. Other times, the ‘free hug’ group would stop someone who was walking past and politely offer an embrace. Alone in the back of the crowd, Lisa Carmichael, stood frozen when Parker first offered her a hug.

After a split second of hesitation, the two laughingly embraced with the paper sign wedged between them.

“I really needed that,” said Carmichael, a 36 year-old, single mom from Alleghany, New York. New to Winston-Salem, Carmichael said she saw the weekend’s music festival as an opportunity to make connections in her new city.

“People I’ve met are nice, but not many people on the street will stop you and ask you if you want a hug,” said Carmichael.

Parker is one of many ‘huggers’ who regularly volunteer their time and cuddles to the Winston-Salem community as a part of a non-profit, volunteer organization called Compassionate Winston-Salem. The organization sparked from a much larger non-profit movement organization called Compassionate Action Network International (CANI). The CANI website, compassionateaction.org, describes its mission as ‘an international network of individuals, organizations, and cities that have been inspired by the Charter for Compassion to work in diverse ways to create cultures of compassion locally and globally.’

The Charter For Compassion, which can also be found on the CANI website, urges individuals to pledge to make compassion a “clear, luminous and dynamic force” in their communities and cities.

The Winston-Salem chapter is manned by “compassion soldiers and secret agents of compassion” who volunteer their time to promote kindness and connectedness throughout the city. Random acts like feeding downtown parking meters, performing flash mob dances, and buying a stranger a hot cup of coffee, are just a few of many ways that volunteers can help to build more of a community feel amongst Winston-Salem residents, explained Parker.

“There is so much compassion, respect, and love from such a diverse group flowing out towards another diverse group,” said Parker about the hugging at Rock the Block. Parker alone hugged over 15 individuals in the course of an hour, and her few compassion agents received more. The novelty, Parker says, has yet to wear off, as she is still amazed by the generosity of volunteers and compassion receivers, but the support from the city of Winston-Salem is what has really taken Parker and other “compassion soldiers” by pleasant surprise.

This past July, Compassionate Winston-Salem presented a resolution to City Council. Parker and other lead volunteers introduced the initiative of making Winston-Salem a Compassionate City under the Charter for Compassion. Compassionate Winston Salem would serve as an umbrella, under which all of the programs and acts of compassion performed throughout the city could be celebrated. The council members agreed to adopt Compassionate Winston-Salem into the city.

Parker believes that by making Winston-Salem a compassionate city, Winston-Salem residents will treat their neighbors and fellow members of the community through with a greater love and respect.

“The best way to promote and spread compassion is for each of us to find our own happiness. Having compassion for self develops into compassion for others, therein creating a compassionate world, said Parker.

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