Pausing Hugging

We have bad news and better news.
Bad News
HAPPEE’s Infectious Disease consultant Dr. David Wohl and I were finally able to connect in mid-January, after playing contact tag for awhile. He recommended not hugging students until the latest Omicron COVID surge declines. The fact that I am (some might say “annoyingly”) careful and bivalent boosted and, even so, spent over two weeks in bed (but not in the hospital, thanks to the vaccines!) with COVID in January supports the fact that our risk is higher now than it has been at any time in the past. Sigh. Which means that not only are our volunteers at risk of becoming infected but that if we hug while infected without (or before) knowing that we are infected, Huggers especially could easily infect lots and lots of students during a shift. And I would not wish my COVID bedridden weeks on a single college student, much less lots and lots of them.

The leadership team spent the rest of that night discussing, debating, and generally wrestling with what we should do next. We decided to suspend all Hugs and Pups strolls until the pandemic slows down, which is exactly what we had to do in January 2022, due to Delta. One year ago, we had to stay completely off campus (except driving through or when the students had gone home for a break) for two months. It was incredibly frustrating and we really didn’t want to have to do that again.

Better News
So the better news is that we came up with what we think is a good compromise. Our highest risk activity is clearly Hugging. Students expect hugs during our strolls, and many have even begun approaching our teams with arms raised for a hug or asking for a hug before they even acknowledge that there is a dog present. I mean, these kids are Huggers – which ordinarily we love! We simply can’t bear the thought of having to tell them no, HOWEVER, we’ve found that during other events, like stations activities and special events, students get involved in whatever else is going on to the point that they (and often we!) forget about hugs. Unlike last year, thanks to the incredible generosity of our donors (including those who donate from every paycheck through their office charity programs), we are now actually in a financial position that allows us to pivot to weekly special events (vaccinations and KN95 masks still required for volunteers, obviously), each with a dog nearby for some student love. The ones we’ve done in the past have been very labor intensive and expensive (even though the expenses were paid largely by our generous volunteers), which obviously won’t work for weekly activities, but they don’t *have* to require a lot of people or cash.

1st Activity
Our first activity was last Thursday, called “Who Makes You HAPPEE?” A handful of volunteers, including a student, set up two folding tables with pens and notecards and envelopes on each, bought at Scrap Exchange or donated, often in small batches, by our wonderful volunteers. We stocked candy bowls there too, of course, thanks to Halloween leftovers, and Apollo the Poodle was nearby. ❤ Students wrote a short note of appreciation to someone who has made them smile, sealed and addressed the envelope, and left it with us. We stamped (thanks donors!!) and mailed them all. There were over 80 altogether – if we’d had more tables and could have fit more students, there would have been more. As it was, about 10 went to friends or faculty/staff on campus and the rest went through the US Post Office – including one to Canada and three to Italy. Our exchange students were excited to learn that we’d even mail theirs. We were too busy most of the time to take pictures, so we don’t have many, but it was so much fun! The students all thought carefully about who they wanted to write and what they wanted to say and were really happy during the whole experience. Gratitude is a wonderful and powerful emotion. We will definitely do this one again.

2nd Activity
This week’s activity is “Group Dog Walks.” Duke and Willow will be (separately) walking around the Quad(s) on Friday at lunchtime. Hopefully they will have their locations posted on Glympse, but regardless, they won’t be too hard to find. Each dog will have their Mom and a Non-Hugger – Teammate? Companion? Conversation Starter? We haven’t figured out that terminology just yet. Two students will be volunteering as well, and any student who is interested can join in and walk along with them. I’m suddenly picturing Forrest Gump on a jog. Anyway, several students have told us that they’d do like to join us, so hopefully the HAPPEE teams won’t get too lonely. Ideally the walking will be constant, so that it wouldn’t be easily confused with our traditional visits to campus, during which we Hug so many students. We’ll also have our “Hugs & Pups” signs, with “Hugs” temporarily crossed out. Group Dog Walks is targeting our goal of facilitating community building among students, to help them build a support network that is around even when we aren’t. So although the students won’t be able to really play with the dogs during the walk, we are hoping that they will talk to each other more instead. In fact, when I texted one of our student volunteers about this goal, she replied: “I love this philosophy of connecting students together and having more intentional/meaningful events since the usual way is on pause. I really appreciate the effort y’all put into this group. It definitely makes me feel special and loved and, in a way, more at home while away from my family.” So apparently we’re doing something right!

3rd Activity
Next week, weather permitting, we hope to do a rock painting event for students. We’ll provide rocks that already have a base coat of paint (God bless our volunteers!) so that all the students have to do is draw or write on them – we’ll bring lots of paint pens (thanks again donors!). We will learn from the first activity and have more tables and LOTS of rocks available. The students we’ve talked about it are already super excited about it. Hopefully whichever dog gets signed up for this one won’t end up multi-colored, but you never know. If they do, believe me, you’ll see pictures later!

We are still brainstorming Special Events ideas and of course we are watching the pandemic closely, ready and waiting to resume our regularly-scheduled activities including Hugs whenever it is safer. In the meantime, the students have made it clear that they miss having us on campus four times a week but appreciate our concern for their health and are happy that we are still coming to support them as much as we can. We too are truly grateful that we are able to continue loving on the students in different, safer ways. That ability is all thanks to those who have supported us financially as well as those who are so generous with their time and love. In other words, y’all make us HAPPEE!
Cathy Emrick

UPDATE: After nearly a month-long pause on Hugging, we were thrilled to be able to return to our regularly scheduled Hugs and Pups strolls.

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