‘Hug lady’ strives for connections

‘Hug lady’ strives for connections

Shirley-Anne Joy wants to change the world, one hugat a time.
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Embrace: Shirley-Anne Joy gives Jett, Lou and Steve Chapman-Black a pre-Christmas hug at Pacific Park. Picture: Simone De Peak

Affectionately known around Newcastle as The Hug Lady, Ms Joy appears at events and random spots across the city with her homemade cardboard sign and waits for strangers who are feeling short ofa human connection.

Thisholiday season, Shirley-Anne –a Largs native –wants people to rememberthe importance of “presence and connection in the moment” in a world that’s speeding up and leaving people isolated.

“There’s a lot of sadness and unhappiness on the planet so I figure this is a small part I can play in making people feel good,” she said in Pacific Park, in the city’s east end, last week.

“[It] just makes a difference and raises people’s spirits.”

Being open tothe embrace of a strangeron the street can be a difficult prospect for some, especially in a time when people areincreasingly interacting with others through the barrier of a digital screen.

While she admits she gets some odd looks from some people who pass her and her cardboard sign, which simply says “free hugs here”,Ms Joy welcomes anyone who approaches her with warmth.

And she won’t askpeopleif they would like a hug, instead she waits for them tofeel comfortable enough to approach her.

But what has driven The Hug Lady in her mission?

“Realising that the average hug was three seconds and that if you hug someone for 20 seconds or longer it activates your happiness hormones,” Ms Joy said. “I’m one of 11 children–not a lot of hugging went on. Then when I had my two children, hugs became a very important part of our dynamic.”

About a decade ago, Ms Joyjoined The Hug Patrol on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which performed group hugs at festivals and community events, but she found thatit wasn’t her cup of tea. It wasn’t until she was chatting with friends in a cafe in Sydney’s northern suburbs about five years ago that she had her lightbulb moment.

“I was talking about how I really wanted a hug and [a friend]said: ‘I dare you to hug everyone in the cafe’,”Ms Joyrecalled.“I went and talked to the owner and he said‘yes, I’ll have the first hug’.”

Soon after, she set up the Hugging the World To Healing Facebook page. Now, Ms Joy can be found at the Newcastle Farmers’ Markets each Sunday and often appears at other community events. Sometimes, she simply sets up at the beach or in a park.

“The sad thing is … a lot of people live with people but they still don’t get hugged,” she said.

“You can live in a house full of people and you’re just passing by all the time and you’re not really getting that connection. I guess my ultimate aim is peace–that we can ultimately find inner peace so we can express that out in the world.”