On April 14, 2007, Ingrid Eubanks decided to give out free hugs at an event in Downtown Milwaukee celebrating prominent local women called The Gathering.
"I hugged about 500 women that day and from that moment, I knew this was something I wanted to continue doing," says Eubanks.
For the past decade, Eubanks has offered free hugs every year at Summerfest and Locust Street Days. She estimates she’s given at least 10,000 free hugs.
To mark 10 years of embracing strangers, Eubanks formed a "free hug committee" with friends to plan something special for Locust Street Festival on June 11.
"I wanted to give thanks to all the kind souls that have hugged me throughout the years," says Eubanks. "There are prizes and gifts for those who hug me this year."
Eubank's is also celebrating her incredible weight loss journey. Since 2014, Eubanks, who underwent surgery, shed 213 pounds.
"At my highest weight I was 413 pounds. It was hard to breathe, walk and turn over in bed. I felt trapped in my own body," she says. "Every time I’ve done the free hugs my friends help me walk home. I would be in a lot of pain from standing many hours. But not this year."
When Eubanks was obese, hugging was a way of practicing forgiveness after a lifetime of being bullied because of her weight.
"Obese people are judged so often, but I chose to keep a smile on my face. Hate and anger are too much of a burden to carry," she says.
Now she's hugging for different reasons, but it will be equally as satisfying. "I feel that humans are so disconnected from one another and hugs are beneficial for our health," Eubanks says.
Recently, she achieved a goal that was on her bucket list for years: to run one mile.
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Eubank’s hugging high points include hugging Mayor Tom Barrett for five years in a row. "He’s a good hugger," she says.
A good hug, according to Eubanks, means people standing heart to heart with both arms around each other for at least 30 seconds.
Eubanks does not verbally ask people if they want a hug, but she does hold a sign announcing that free hugs are available.
"I wave and smile at people, but I don’t really say anything to them," she says. "I allow people to approach me."
Very few people have been hesitant or refused to hug her, but she also is able to "tell" when someone is open to hugging.
"I’ve been doing this a while and I can tell who wants to hug me," says Eubanks. "Most people read my sign and come to me with their arms open wide."
Eubanks says providing hugs and her weight loss have equally changed her life for the better.
"I receive so many well wishes, kind words and love from complete strangers," she says.
For more positive vibes from Eubanks, tune into her Inspirational Hour every Thursday at 6 p.m. on Riverwest Radio.