The characters surrounding 20-year-old Robert Townsend on any given Wednesday are unique, even for a college campus. This Wednesday, they are especially noticeable: Spiderman and Venom stand atop a bench holding a sign with the words “Free Hugs,” while Townsend, in street clothes, sits next to a curly-haired skeleton, waiting for the next high five, hug or fist bump to come his way.
A psychology major and aspiring divorce counselor, Townsend has been on the giving end of hugs and other positive gestures since fall of 2015, when he began attending UNT as a freshman. Since then, he has created his own alternating group of people who attempt to spread joy every Wednesday at UNT.
The group, known formally as The Hug Squad, aims to spread happiness and counter what many see as hateful rhetoric from a man who preaches various Christian texts weekly at the same location, next to the Business Leadership Building.
“One of the things I feel the preacher tends to do is bring quite a bit of negativity towards various people,” Townsend said. “We have people come over, and they give us a hug and say I’m glad you’re here… I need someone to level my head after that.”
Currently a sophomore, Townsend formed The Hug Squad after a few weeks of standing near the preacher as a freshman with another UNT student, a junior who held a sign that said ‘preach love, not hate’. When the student stopped showing up, Townsend decided to create his own sign offering free hugs in order to spread positivity.
“It became obvious we needed to make our own thing,” Townsend said. “They’re not coming back, so we’ll be here to spread the love and joy and happiness and make people smile.”
While he isn’t currently taking classes at UNT because of financial concerns, Townsend still drives to Denton from his home in Caddo Mills weekly in order to give out hugs.
The one to two hour commute takes up a large chunk of his morning, amongst the many physical chores he also completes on the hay-farm he shares with his mother. Townsend wakes up and takes care of the horses, the dogs and the equipment he’ll need at UNT for the day. Once the car is loaded with whiteboards, expo markers and Mr. Strudel the skeleton, Townsend sets out for Denton solely to represent The Hug Squad.
He has never missed a Wednesday.
“[For me to be absent] has yet to happen,” Townsend said. “I don’t know what happens that day.”
Presumably, one of the other 30-odd members of the hug squad would keep the group going.
“We’re working towards developing a friendly little community in and amongst ourselves, and I think we’ve done pretty good with that,” Townsend said. “We’ve gone from being me, a skeleton, and two other people to an alternating group of about 30.”
Townsend said he aims to expand the group even further, and while he doesn’t currently have plans to make it an official UNT organization, Townsend would eventually like to create an avenue for The Hug Squad to raise money for charity.
For now, Townsend is content with the group’s role.
“We sprouted from a group about preaching love, not hate,” Townsend said. “I realized that with all the negativity and all the hatred that we were seeing in the news, there needed to be some sort of positive influence coming in from somewhere, even if it was ridiculous. I feel like we’re making an impact, we’re making people smile and we’re bringing people together.”