B.C. father honours memory of only child by giving hugs to strangers

Taraji Vanderpool, left, is shown with parents, Viv, centre, and Aaron in a family photo. (Aaron Vanderpool - image credit)
Taraji Vanderpool, left, is shown with parents, Viv, centre, and Aaron in a family photo. (Aaron Vanderpool - image credit)

A grieving father is inviting people to participate in the ultimate group hug in memory of his late child.

Aaron Vanderpool has organized an event called "This Hug Is 20 Seconds" in downtown Prince George, B.C., Saturday afternoon. In a show of love and compassion for each other, Vanderpool is welcoming members of the community to gather and share hugs that last for 20 seconds.

The event is being held in remembrance of Vanderpool's only child, Taraji, who passed away unexpectedly last June at the age of 13.

The night before Taraji died, they gave Vanderpool "a big, long, perfect hug." So when Vanderpool was looking for a way to honour Taraji, and a friend mentioned hugs, the idea appealed to Vanderpool on multiple levels.

"I know the therapeutic benefits of having a hug that's at least 20 seconds, so that's how it kind of all started," Vanderpool told host Carolina de Ryk on CBC's Daybreak North.

Aaron Vanderpool
Aaron Vanderpool

"A hug that is at least 20 seconds, what that does is it actually synchronizes your heartbeat with the other person's, and that's one way that you can actually de-escalate a person. So if they're feeling anxious or they're just not feeling themselves, you can actually try, if they'll let you, try giving them a hug and you may actually see some benefit that you weren't expecting."

Vanderpool has received support organizing the hug-a-thon from the Prince George Pride Society, which has helped rally volunteers to be on site to help give out the hugs.

Vanderpool says he's hoping 200 individual hugs will be shared during the event, which goes from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. PT across from Prince George city hall.

Lori Kroeker of PG Pride calls the idea "brilliant" and says the society is happy to be involved.

"We're obviously honoured to be able to help and support," Kroeker said. "That's why we're here — for anybody, not just if they've reached out to our board for help."

"[Vanderpool] just wants to give out as many hugs as he can and I think that's beautiful."

Dad 'blown away' by response

Vanderpool describes Taraji as someone who would stand up for others if they were being bullied or were in a disadvantaged position.

"They were like a bulldog," Vanderpool said.

Vanderpool adds that he's been "blown away" by the response the event is getting, both face-to-face and online.

Aaron Vanderpool
Aaron Vanderpool

"Lots of love, lots of people saying that even though they can't be in Prince George that, at that time, they'll be giving their people around them a 20-second hug," he said.

"I'm blessed to have people participating as much as they are."