Sometimes you just need a hug.

That's why on a Wednesday afternoon in April, four middle-aged moms in Hokie gear stood on the Drillfield next to a sign that read, “Need a mom hug?” Any student who agreed was immediately swooped into a big, warm embrace — free of charge, unlimited refills available.

For students who weren’t big huggers — the moms respected boundaries — there were high fives or offers of free snacks and drinks, from ramen noodle cups to Gatorades, donated by Hokie parents. “Take two,” Dayna Fladhammer urged one young woman. “Put it in your backpack, and tonight when you're studying, you'll be like, ‘Those moms were so smart.’” She laughed and added, “That’s my other superpower. I'm really good at hugging and I’m really good at guilt.”

Three of Fladhammer’s four children currently attend Virginia Tech. Her family fell in love with the area and relocated to Blacksburg from Chicago during the pandemic, at the request of their older kids, who wanted to see their littlest sister grow up. That’s made Fladhammer the de facto mom to her children’s friends in the Corps of Cadets, who often gather at the family home in Blacksburg’s Apperson-Dickerson neighborhood for Friday movie nights or Sunday morning brunch.

Then on Feb. 4, a shooting happened in downtown Blacksburg. Dozens of nervous cadets squeezed into her living room. “Do you need a mom hug?” Fladhammer asked them. She was surprised by how long many of them held on to her.

Soon afterward, she called up her friend Erin Vogt and said, “Let’s go to campus and give away hugs.” 

“You’re insane,” Vogt said. “Yes, let’s do it.” 

A few emails connected them with Kenlee Andreu, coordinator for New Student and Family Programs, who offered the support of Student Affairs for their idea. After recruiting volunteer huggers through the Virginia Tech Parents Facebook group, Fladhammer and Vogt officially launched Hugs for Hokies with their first event on Feb. 21. 

Fladhammer wasn’t entirely sure how people would react to the offer of a random hug from a strange lady. But the positive response showed how desperately some students needed the extra bit of love. “You know how if you're really stressed, and somebody hugs you, you kind of fall apart?” asked Carla McCabe, the mother of a Hokie junior and a recent graduate, who’s helped with two Hugs for Hokies events. “I had two girls completely start bawling in the middle of a hug.” (She’s learned to bring a mirror to check her mascara.) 

Many students they hugged shared stories about what was going on in their lives, good or bad, that made the hug so meaningful: My mom just got diagnosed with cancer. I broke up with my boyfriend. I failed a test. I'm lonely. I miss my mom. I'm having such a great week. With some students, the moms sat down for long talks, giving out their personal phone number at the end of the conversation, even inviting some students over for a meal. 

The reaction was amazing, said Andreu. “When we posted about it on our Instagram, the comments were either like, ‘Best part of my day, thank you so much,’ or ‘I didn't know this was happening, please do this again.’ So we scheduled three more.” 

For the second Hugs for Hokie events in April, the group was even more intentional about providing help beyond hugs. The moms handed out cards with contact information for the Cook Counseling Center, Hokie Wellness, the Women’s Center, and other campus resources. Aware that at the end of the semester, food insecurity rises among students running out of meal plan dollars, they also stocked the snack tables with beef jerky sticks, microwaveable mac and cheese, and cups of Jif peanut butter, all donated by Hokie parents. “Look at how fast the peanut butter is going,” Vladhammer pointed out. “Kids need the protein.”

Faraway parents who don’t get to hug their own kids enough have been overjoyed about Hugs for Hokies. “This is one of the reasons I encouraged my kid to go to VT,” wrote one parent on the Virginia Tech Parents Facebook page. Another said, “This makes me cry happy tears.” 

Many parents urged their children to go get a hug by proxy. “My mom begged me to,” said freshman Alexa Correll. “I’m from Connecticut, so it’s a long way from her.” 

Overhearing this, mom volunteer Kathy Ribbens said, “You get a hug just for that.” 

“She gets a hug for having to spell ‘Connecticut’ a lot as a child,” joked Therese Walters, who in addition to volunteering with Hugs for Hokies also organizes Cheesy Nights for the University Libraries.

There’s magic in a mom hug. At the Hugs for Hokies event in April, the volunteers set up on the Drillfield at 10 a.m. and intended to leave by 3 p.m. But one young woman told them that she was headed to take an intimidating test and would need somebody to either celebrate or commiserate with her at 3:45 p.m. “She asked us if we'd stay,” said Fladhammer, “and I was like, ‘Honey, of course I will.'” 

Free hugs? “That’s the spirit of Ut Prosim,” Fladhammer said.

Two more Hugs for Hokies events are scheduled for finals week of spring semester. 

  • Wednesday, May 4, 10:15 am to 3:45 pm, near the Drillfield-side entrance of the library
  • Saturday, May 7, 10:15 am to 3:45 pm, at West End Market

Volunteers are welcome. Sign up here.

Share this story