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Hugging can be contagious

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Andy Montoya offers a free hug to a woman in Manhattan's Union Square during a February Free Hugs Campaign event. (Michael Dang/CNS)

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After its video debut on YouTube, The Free Hugs Campaign has inspired huggers across the world to start their own campaigns. (Michael Dang/CNS)

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Group hugs are a common sight at any Free Hugs event. Here, Andy Montoya holds a sign in Spanish and is engulfed in hugs by a group of teenagers. (Michael Dang/CNS)

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After its video debut on YouTube, The Free Hugs Campaign has inspired huggers across the world to start their own campaigns. (Michael Dang/CNS)

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, Bethany Pagliaruio was shopping in Manhattan's Union Square when she spotted a man standing on the sidewalk dressed in a hooded sweatshirt holding a sign, his hands shaking from the cold.

He wasn’t asking for money, food or a job. In fact, he had something to give. His sign had two simple words on it: Free Hugs.

Pagliaruio put down her shopping bags and gave the man, 30-year-old Andy Montoya, a warm embrace.

“I was going home and was thinking, ‘Wow, it’s such a beautiful, wonderful day,’ and then somebody gave me a hug and I said, ‘Wow, I want to give everyone free hugs,’” said Pagliaruio, a 25-year-old nurse who grabbed a Free Hugs sign near Montoya and held it up.

“It feels really good giving people hugs,” she said. “It makes other people feel way better than they expected they would feel.”

Although hugging strangers on the street may strike some as an odd impulse, especially in a sometimes cranky city like New York, an Australian man’s crusade to provide free hugs in public places has spread worldwide, become a sensation on YouTube and inspired a Web site to connect givers and people in need. He even received an invitation to meet Oprah Winfrey, the queen of hugs.

The crusade began two and half years ago when the Australian man, who goes by the pseudonym Juan Mann, was returning to Sydney after living for a brief time in London.

He watched as people greeted their friends and family members at the airport. Then Mann noticed as he made his way through the city that many people were frowning or looking sad and that most people focused their eyes on the footpaths, ignoring most of their surroundings.

“I thought I'd do something to get people to look up and take notice of the world around them,” said Mann, a 23-year-old coffee barista.

Mann made a sign with the words “Free Hugs” on both sides. He found the busiest pedestrian intersection in Sydney, the Pitt Street Mall, and held the sign up for everyone to see. For the first 15 minutes, people ignored him and Mann began to feel nervous.

Then a woman tapped him on the shoulder and told him that her dog had died that morning and that a year ago her only daughter had died in a car accident. The one thing she needed was a hug. Mann got on one knee, put his arms around her and they hugged.

Mann returned with the sign every Thursday, and soon people with their own signs joined him in giving out hugs.

Last September, Shimon Moore, the 22-year-old lead singer of the rock band Sick Puppies, made a get-well video for Mann after hearing that Mann’s grandmother had died. The video was set to the Sick Puppies song “All the Same” and showed Mann giving out hugs to strangers.

The video was placed on YouTube and was soon watched by more than 10 million people. It inspired others around the world to begin their own free hugs campaigns.

“The fact that it has caught on so strongly says how much people need this,” Moore said, adding that the simplicity of the idea made it contagious.

“It’s just a piece of cardboard and a simple statement for two strangers for a moment of affection and a moment of connection,” he said.

After the YouTube video, Moore’s band got a record deal with Virgin, and both Moore and Mann were invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.

“Going to New York and being on her show, I was absolutely swarmed from the minute that I stepped out of my hotel and into the street,” Mann said.

Mann was surprised by the reaction. “I thought it would just be a little bit of fun and meet one of my most simple needs," he said. “When I realized that it meant something to somebody, I kept going with it because who would have thought that somebody else somewhere else would take it upon themselves to stand around with signs and offer people free hugs.”

Mann says the impact that technology has had on human relationships is partly responsible for why people are in such need of hugs.

“While [technology] makes the world a smaller place, it also keeps people apart because it’s keeping people inside talking to people online and learning things without really getting that level of human interaction,” he said.

Carlos Montoya, a 35-year-old corporate events coordinator in New York, came across the free hugs campaign online and decided to gather up a few friends and give out free hugs on a regular basis.

Andy Montoya, Carlos’ brother, said he was a little intimidated about standing on the street with a sign. “What really struck me was that I got like four hugs in a matter of 30 seconds and that was an awesome sensation and that really made my day,” he said.

Inspired by the free hugs campaign, Rif Parks, 34, and Kimarie Teter, 39, of Los Angeles organized Operation Troop Hug with other huggers across the nation. Their mission: to get Americans to hug in support of soldiers serving abroad on Valentine’s Day.

Each hugger had a sign with the name of a U.S. soldier on it and was videotaped hugging people on the street. The videos were then posted to YouTube so that soldiers could access them online.

“We hugged hundreds of people that day,” Parks said. “There were two ex-Marines, really big and tough, that walked by our event and said that they were really touched by it.”

After their appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Moore and Mann started an Internet-based charity group. They are also creating an online counseling service.

For now, Mann continues to go out every Thursday to offer hugs at the Pitt Street Mall. He tries to give each person the perfect embrace.

“It’s just a matter of having the right amount of pressure and the right amount of sincerity as well,” he said. “Just be sincere about it, and it’ll come from a genuine place, and it’ll be a pretty decent hug.”

E-mail: mpd2115@columbia.edu