By Vanessa West

Read about Jessica Johnson, the founder of the Joplin Free Mom Hugs organization.

Studies have shown that hiding one’s identity has detrimental psychological and social effects. Concealing one’s true self causes dissociation between the public and private persona, and often requires a careful balancing act to keep their true identity from being revealed. Those who become self-aware of their LGBTIA+ identity report difficulties in achieving this awareness and are often subjected to homophobia by family and friends. Conversely, coming out can be frightening and confusing, particularly when a person’s family or community is unwilling to accept them. Anxiety may be tempered with relief but coming out can be akin to turning a puzzle box upside down, then trying to put the pieces in their correct place. The elements of one’s personality that have previously been hidden can now be fully integrated into their life, but it takes love, acceptance, and patience to become whole.

LGBTIA+ young people are at much greater risk than their cisgender peers for mental and physical health problems. Family rejection has shown to be a reliable predictor of the wellbeing of a LGBTIA, with rejection increasing the risk of homelessness, drug use, depression, and suicide. More than 40% of non-binary youth have attempted suicide, and the numbers remain alarmingly high for gay, lesbian, and transgender young people. 

In 2014 Sara Cunningham founded the non-profit Free Mom Hugs. The organization was born of Cunningham’s dedication to support her son, who is gay. Cunningham, who is from Oklahoma City, OK, is a self-described Christian who saw a need for advocacy, support, and encouragement among the LGBTIA community. Free Mom Hugs has spread across the country, educating communities, offering support, and yes, handing out free mom (and dad) hugs. 

I myself spent JoMoPride 2019 sporting my Free Mom Hugs t-shirt, walking up and down Joplin Avenue hugging anyone who accepted my offer of a squeeze. Teenagers grabbed me around the neck and told me they didn’t want to let go. One young lady with purple hair said her own mom was very accepting, then dove in for a hug. I was shocked at how many people seemed to need the dose of oxytocin – the feel-good chemical our brains release during physical contact. It was as joyful an experience for me as it was for those I hugged. I don’t think I had ever seen that many people smiling in one place. I was able to join in the fun because Jessica Johnson, who saw the need, founded the Joplin chapter of FMH. Since its inception, the group has traveled to area Pride events, advocated for more inclusive laws regarding sexuality, and hugged an untold number of people. I spoke to Jessica about how she became involved with the group. 

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I am 39 and I was born and raised in Paradise, California. My dad got a job transfer with Walmart, which is what brought me to the Siloam Springs, Arkansas back in ‘99. I graduated from Siloam Springs High School in 2000. I worked restaurant jobs and eventually made a connection in photography. I was certified as a studio photographer and ran a studio in Springdale, Arkansas. I was in a very bad car accident in 2005 and should not have survived. I moved up to New York when I was able to essentially care for myself again and began my career in bartending. I have been back in the Joplin area since 2007. In 2014 I gave birth to a son. Through countless doctor appointments, he was diagnosed as severely autistic in September 2016. I have been a stay-at-home mom to provide for his needs for about 5 years now. 

How did you first hear of Free Mom Hugs?

I honestly cannot remember how I first heard of FMH. I just remember thinking how amazing it was! It really does only take one act of kindness to change someone’s day.

What drew you to begin a chapter in Joplin?

There is a laundry list of my reasons why. Long story short, I have seen the need. I have worked in a variety of fields and too often I have seen people mistreated publicly because of the way they looked or acted. I have seen the look on the face of someone who heard what was “whispered” about them, I have seen the humans that are being discarded for not fitting some societal standard of what is acceptable. These people have been my friends, my neighbors, my work mates… After reporting another incident at yet another local store I thought, this just isn’t enough! I knew that the pride fest 2019 would be happening soon so I contacted the Missouri Chapter to find out how I could help and how I could do it quickly.  

What changes would like to see happen in our community?

Acceptance and inclusion. Better funding to accomplish bigger needs. In larger communities I see things like the Glo Center or community centers that offer a safe space for a variety of services. Mental/emotional health resources like support groups and community activities would be a great benefit, especially for youth in non-supportive home situations. We need an outlet where people of all ages feel supported and safe. 

Can you tell us a bit about the events you have planned for Jomo Pride?

Pride will be kicking off with Sara Cunningham, the founder of Free Mom Hugs, saying a few words before the Pride Parade starts. Following the parade Free Mom Hugs Joplin and Springfield will be downtown and ready to show some love and give some hugs!!! 

With a ginormous thanks to Ron Burch and JoMo Pride, Sara Cunningham will be here for the whole two-day PrideFest. [On] day two, the Boujee Drag Brunch will be at Blackthorn with the festivities moving over to Pride in the Park at 1pm. FMH will be out and about again, roaming free and supporting the community any way we can. Towards the end of day two, Sara will be back downtown for a meet and greet book signing as we close up PrideFest 2021.

What does the future hold for Free Mom Hugs?

The only thing that I can say for certain is that we will be here to support our community. Joplin and Springfield are joining forces to become FMH SWMO reach an even larger area. I hope to see our chapters grow and eventually be able to offer services to better support in the future. I hope to host a FMH event within the next year and have more involvement with JoMo Pride and JoMoEq! 

What message would you like to share with the individuals in our community who may be going through struggles with acceptance by their families?

HANG IN THERE! There are going to be easy days that everything goes right and there are going to be days that you feel absolutely defeated. DON’T GIVE UP! Your family may not understand you; you may not even understand yourself yet but know that you are perfectly made and this world needs your light! You will find your “tribe”!  Celebrate your authentic self and know that the right people will stay and support you and your future.  Remember love is love is love and absolutely has no limits. The most courageous thing you can do is love yourself enough to BE YOU. 

One of my favorite quotes:

“It took her a while to realize that she is a perfect design. There were no flaws. When she was being created there were no oopsies; there wasn’t too much of this, too little of that. The way that she was made was the way she was made intentionally. You too are a perfect design.” 

-Bob the Drag Queen-HBO We’re Here Branson

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