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Not being able to touch or hug loved ones has been one of the hardest things about the pandemic – but one non-profit has a solution for that.
Hugger Island, based in Medellín, Colombia, sends people a 'Hugger' toy, a creature with long arms that are weighted so they feel like a human hug when wrapped around you.
A hug from the Hugger toy can be a powerful stand-in for the real thing. Image credit: Hugger Island.
When customers buy one, they have the option of sending another Hugger to someone who needs a hug, including children in hospital and older people in care homes. The Huggers are made by women living in Medellín's comuna informal housing. They are paid a fair wage and can improve their quality of life through the work.
“The Hugger has no eyes or ears, because all he needs is a heart," explained Hugger Island's founder Viviana Otalvaro, speaking to HERE360. “If you hug the Hugger, you are hugging yourself."
Hugger Island started in 2015 and runs workshops teaching children and other vulnerable groups how to cope with difficult emotions such as anger and sadness. There is a book, El Libro del Abrazador (The Hugger's Book), which tells the story of the Hugger and the ideas behind it.
But since COVID-19 struck, demand for Huggers has gone through the roof.
“We have grown a lot in the past year," said founder Viviana Otalvaro. “Last year, we made 8,000 Huggers, compared to 3,000 the previous year."
Viviana has been touched by stories of families unable to be together in a relative's last moments.
“A woman called me from Miami, saying she wanted a Hugger quickly because her father was very sick. She said she knew the Hugger would help her to be with him at that moment even though they could not be together physically." Although the woman's father eventually died, the family took comfort from being able to connect at such a vital time.
One Hugger sent from Colombia to London, UK even has his own Instagram account.
Hugger Island has also donated Huggers to doctors and nurses, who have faced extra strain treating coronavirus patients in the past year.
Hugger Island allows people to connect even while they are at a distant. Image credit: Hugger Island.
One of the challenges has been getting deliveries out on time when demand is so much higher than before.
While some deliveries are made to far-flung locations including the US and Europe, most are in the home city of Medellín. In November last year, Viviana turned to HERE WeGo Deliver to save having to manually plot routes for Hugger couriers on a piece of paper. Christmas demand was high – about 500 Huggers were sent out in the city during this time.
"I really can say that the app helped me to plan the route quickly and easily with the new delivery staff we hired.
“It's super easy – you put all the addresses in a web page, and get a PDF with the directions," Viviana said. “It saves us about 40 minutes every day and a lot of stress."
HERE WeGo Deliver is available free until the end of the year for small-scale delivery route planning.
It's not only those who receive the toy who benefit. The women in the comunas get more regular work now thanks to the increase in demand.
“One of the women who make the Huggers told me it has allowed her to replace her plastic roof with a proper roof. Another one could finally afford to take a holiday. She saw the sea for the first time in her life," said Viviana.
Viviana [foreground] with some of the women who make Huggers. Image credit: Hugger Island.
Hugger Island has come a long way since it started 10 years ago. Viviana created the Hugger toy for a boyfriend when she went to Argentina to study.
The relationship did not last – “He broke my heart," she said – but the Hugger became a family trope. Relatives would send each other Viviana's Huggers every time they were going to be separated for a while. At the same time, Viviana was studying cognitive ergonomics or biomechanics. What she discovered about the importance of physical touch for wellbeing and the chemical oxytocin which is released when we hug gave her an idea. Hugger Island was born.
Hugs can release powerful chemicals such as oxytocin, the "love hormone".
The non-profit already operates in Venezuela and there are plans to go to Peru and Argentina, but South America is not the limit of Viviana's ambitions.
“Our dream is to go everywhere because hugging is a universal gesture," she said. “Everyone can understand what a hug means. The Hugger is the perfect gift."
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