A father who wore a "Free Dad Hugs" T-shirt to the Pittsburgh's Pride Parade shared what it was like to embrace kids who had been rejected by their parents.

By Maressa Brown
Jana Sabeth Schultz/Unsplash

June 13, 2019

Last year, a woman named Sara Cunningham made headlines for offering to be a "stand-in mom" at same-sex weddings. The response was amazing, and Cunningham went on to found an organization called Free Mom Hugs, which has local chapters all over the country. Now, as cities around the country celebrate Pride month, a dad named Howie Dittman is making headlines for a moving post he wrote after attending the Pittsburgh Pride parade alongside fellow Free Mom Hugs participants who provided celebrants with, well, free hugs.

In a post shared to the Love What Matters Facebook page on Monday, June 10, Dittman, 44, explained that he and some friends showed up to the parade that day wearing T-shirts that read "Free Dad Hugs" and "Free Mom Hugs." "We gave out hundreds of hugs," the father of two, who has an 18-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, wrote. "Hundreds. Some were super happy hugs. But others were like these two... and there were way too many like them." The two hugs he's referencing were captured in moving photos, posted alongside the story.

​​​​Dittman explained that the young man he is hugging in the first photo "was kicked out at 19 when his parents found out. They haven't spoken to him since. He cried on my shoulder. Sobbed. Squeezed me with everything he had. I felt a tiny bit of that pain that he carries with him every minute of every day. He was abandoned because of who he loves. And on June 9th, 2019, he was participating in a celebration of love when he was brought to his emotional knees by a shirt that said ‘FREE DAD HUGS’ on a complete stranger."

He then shared that he didn't know "the specifics" about the young woman he was hugging in the second photo. "But I know that she saw me from across the street," he shared. "I wasn't paying attention. By the time she got to me, she had tears in her eyes. She stood in front of me and looked up at me, with a look of sadness and helplessness that I'll never forget. She hugged me with everything she had. And I hugged her back. She held on for so long, melting into me, and thanked me endlessly. And I can't stop thinking about her. What she must be going thru with her family... the ones who are supposed to be there for her no matter what. Who does she go to when she needs advice on love, money or just life? Who does she share old memories with that only her parents would have been there for? What are her holidays like? How often does she hope for that phone call, with unconditional love on the other end? I don't know her story. But it doesn't feel like a huge leap to assume she's lost those who should love her the most and forever."

Dittman continued, "Imagine that, parents. Imagine that your child feels SO LOST FROM YOU that they sink into the arms of a complete stranger and sob endlessly just because that stranger is wearing a shirt offering hugs from a dad. Think of the depths of their pain. Try to imagine how deep those cuts must be."

The Pennsylvania father concluded with a plea for other moms and dads: "Please don't be the parent of a child that has to shoulder that burden. I met WAY too many of them, of all ages, today. And if by chance anyone knows these folks, please let them know they can reach out any time they need a surrogate dad to talk to. I'll be there.”

Dittman, who runs a volunteer group called Helping Butler County, dedicated to identifying needs in the community and meeting them, tells Parents.com that he was inspired to attend the Pride Parade when Denna Hays, the founder of the Butler County Alliance for Children, RSVP'd to an event on their local Free Mom Hugs chapter page. "It sounded like a great way to put a smile on peoples' faces, and I did have a suspicion that dads, in general, aren't likely as accepting of individuals in the LGBTQ lifestyle as a mom would be," Dittman explains to Parents.com. "So, I got on Amazon Prime and ordered a shirt."

He says that following that very first hug—with the young woman in his viral photo—he says knew he wasn't just going to be about smiles. "The way she looked at me and hugged me...it was clear there was more to it all," he says. "From there out, it was a mix of joy and sadness from the people that I got to hug. Hugging well over 700 people, there were many who held on and didn't want to let go. And I wasn't going to be the first one to stop the hug. I got home and was actually pretty angry about all of it. That their parents had burdened them with that pain, just because of who they loved. As a dad, I can't even imagine that. So, I penned that post directed at the parents from a parent."

Wracking up over 6K shares since it was posted earlier this week, Dittman's experience has touched a nerve with the LGBTQ community and fellow parents. A commenter named Julie Lungwitz Goodman shared that she offered hugs in Buffalo Grove, Illinois' first Pride Parade. "There were sooo many hugs," she wrote. "I am an ally and am willing to give that hug and shoulder."

Another named Jordan Taylor noted, "One of the greatest hugs I have EVER received was on June 8th, 2019 from a woman in a 'Free Mom Hugs' shirt outside of LA Pride."

And a mom named Elizabeth Houser Broome echoed powerful message of this dad's experience beautifully: "Family isn’t always blood. Sometimes friends and strangers with the best intentions can be just as important. Thank y’all for giving those much needed hugs and acceptance. I’m a mom of two small kids myself. I wish I could’ve been there to hug some folks who needed them as well. And to tell people like my forever hero, Fred Rogers, used to say, 'I like you just the way you are.' More love, more hugs, more kindness."

Dittman says he didn't think anyone would actually see his post, let alone that it would go viral—and inspire 1,750 conversations he says he has now had with people responding to the post. "I've managed to respond to every one of them so far," he notes. "Many of them have been heterosexual people thanking me for changing their perception. I've had parents write me to tell me they were one of those parents that abandoned their children, but that they've reached out after seeing the post and are going to try to make it right. I've had children of those parents, of all ages, tell me that they got phone calls from their parents for the first time in years, apologizing for not supporting them and asking to reconcile."

He says he's had "at least half a dozen people" tell him that they were planning on taking their lives, but now feel hope as the result of his post. "I don't know how to express how overwhelming that is," Dittman says. "I don't know how to get my head around something I wrote in the span of 10 minutes having that kind of an impact. But here we are. Overall, I'm excited that the post may be changing even a few minds about acceptance and true tolerance. I'm not a fan of labels or social buckets at all, so we'll just keep on doing what we're doing with Helping Butler County and addressing the needs of people just because they're people."

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