November 26, 2019
NEWBURGH, N.Y -
Motivational speaker Ken Nwadike Jr. inspired the students of Mount Saint Mary College on Wednesday, November 13.
Peace activist and motivational speaker Ken Nwadike Jr. inspired the students of Mount Saint Mary College with his stories of positivity in the face of adversity on Wednesday, November 13.
Commonly referred to as “The Free Hugs Guy,” Nwadike has advocated for the homeless and underprivileged youth, mediated discussions amidst riots and protests, and showed that the world can be changed without violence.
“It was really difficult for me to get to this point,” Nwadike admitted. He says he began to form a negative bias against law enforcement when, as a child, he witnessed his father’s arrest. At the time, Nwadike didn’t know his father was involved in criminal activity.
Shortly thereafter, Nwadike’s mother moved his family to Los Angeles, and the Rodney King riots erupted soon after. His mother kept his entire family inside during the riots and, instead, taught them about the good deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. During this time, he began to shed the personal biases he had formed as a child.
Although homeless for much of his youth, Nwadike’s luck began to change when his high school track coach invited him to join the team for support and positive influence. Nwadike ran his first race, the one mile, in four minutes and 17 seconds.
“That four minute and 17 second mile pretty much changed my life,” said Nwadike. “I went from being this kid in high school, where it seemed like no one knew or cared about who I was, to now where I was all of a sudden ranked the third fastest high school miler in the entire state.”
Nwadike’s incredible speed landed him a full college scholarship, and he continued to run professionally, even training for the 2008 Olympics. During this time, Nwadike would volunteer at the same homeless shelters in which he grew up, but he noticed the despondency of many of the young people he was trying to help.
“I would ask them, ‘What do you aspire to be after you leave here and get older?’” Nwadike stated. “Their response would be, ‘I’m probably just going to age out of this program and end up on the block.’”
Empathetic towards their situation, Nwadike sought to show these young people what’s possible. “I knew that you can’t just tell people who are down on their luck to lift themselves up,” said Nwadike. “Sometimes you have to walk with them and show them what that looks like.”
Deciding to lead by example, Nwadike planned to shut down Hollywood Boulevard for a fundraising race for the shelter. Although met by discouraging figures and statistics regarding the project’s feasibility, the media attention the project garnered was able to draw in celebrity endorsements that helped pay for the famous venue. This feat began to show the shelter youth the good things they were capable of doing,
After the Boston Marathon bombing, Nwadike encouraged runners to continue participating. Still leading by example, Nwadike planned to qualify for the race himself, but after months of training and two incredibly close preliminary races, Nwadike failed to qualify.
Not wanting to discourage the youth he had worked so hard to build up, Nwadike planned to fly to Boston, regardless, to offer free hugs to passing runners as a show of support. Although the shelter youth were convinced no one would hug him, Nwadike proved them wrong.
The footage of these hugs went viral, and Nwadike had a realization. “The only reason I felt like it was getting all this attention is because we’re not like this anymore,” Nwadike explained. “We’re not embracing one another, and we’re not loving towards one another, and I knew I had to make that my work.”
Nwadike began appearing at riots and protests as a mediator. Armed only with his words, Nwadike braved the many dangers of these events to facilitate conversation and to build social unity, work that he continues to this day.
The talk was sponsored by the Mount’s Student Government Association and the Mount Activities and Programming Board.