'Free Hugs Guy' spreads message of peace at Penn State York

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

For many presenters at the Pullo Center at Penn State York, their elaborate performances involve  live music, dancing and set pieces.

On Monday, Aug. 28, the Pullo stage was occupied by a man with a black shirt, his laptop and his story.

Ken E. Nwadike, a peace activist, video journalist and founder of the Free Hugs Project, spoke to several dozen people about his journey from homelessness to spreading messages of peace around the country as the “Free Hugs Guy.”

Nwadike’s videos of him at tense demonstrations, such as protests in North Carolina and at the inauguration of Donald Trump, have garnered tens of millions of views across Twitter and Facebook.

“I try to get opposing sides to disarm and engage,” he said.

Bleak past: The California native jumped between homeless shelters for much of his adolescence with his mother and siblings while his father was incarcerated.

He said he lacked confidence and avoided talking to people because he would be bullied for the clothes he wore and for the places he temporarily called home.

It was only after he came across an inspiring coach that Nwadike was able to shake off the negativity and focus his energy on becoming a successful track runner.

Within a few years, Nwadike said he became the second-fastest high school runner in California and received an endorsement deal from Nike.

Talyn Smiley, a teacher in the York City School District, said she was touched by Nwadike’s story of inspiration by an educator.

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“I hope I can be the track coach that Ken had,” the McKinley K-8 teacher said.

Instead of continuing his track career, Nwadike said he couldn’t shake where he came from and instead decided to focus on giving back to the shelters that kept a roof over his head.

“I wish I had a mentor in the homeless shelter,” Nwadike said, hoping he could become just that for children going through  similar situations.

While he spoke about his story, he sprinkled in photos and videos from events that he has gone to, at times standing between violent protesters and armed police officers.

He said he got his first look at violent clashes when he lived in southcentral Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992.

“I saw the worst of the worst,” Nwadike said.

Ken E. Nwadike - peace activist and creator of the Free Hugs Project kicks-off Penn State Yorks free cultural series, Monday, August 28, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Hope from terror: Nwadike said his Free Hugs Project stemmed from the Boston Marathon bombings in 2012.

After twice failing to secure a spot in the Boston Marathon the year after the attack, Nwadike decided to go to the marathon anyway and support those running.

In that moment, he decided to wear a black shirt with the words “Free Hugs” with a small sign and the same text.

After his friends doubted he’d go through with the plan, Nwadike decided to record the encounters.

His video giving hugs to hundreds of runners that day quickly went viral online. Nwadike claims the video got over 500,000 hits in the first six hours.

“This is crazy,” he recalls saying. “I’ve got to keep this up.”

After seeing the rising racial tensions from shootings around the country, Nwadike switched his mission to work at sites of protest.

“What if I took this opportunity to go to these places to not so much help people but get them to engage in civil discourse?” he recalls asking himself. “Not just going into these happy places to have conversations with these people,” Nwadike continued.

He said that sparked his regular flights to what sometimes amount to war zones.

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Recently, Nwadike was on the street in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a man plowed into counter protesters of a white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally this month.

Nwadike avoids getting political, saying civility and peace are a nonpartisan action.

“Sure, I have my beliefs while I’m out there,” he said. “But I’m trying to de-escalate things to be peaceful, because hurting people will only make things worse.”

Amber Seidel, an ethics professor at Penn State York, brought her son Byron, 11, to Nwadike’s talk.

“He asked me a million questions (throughout the event),” Seidel said.

Among them were questions about race, protesting and peace.

She said she tries to bring her family to as many campus events as she can to broaden her son’s horizons.

When asked what he learned during the 90-minute talk, Byron gave a brief but eye-opening response.

“That these things happen,” he said.