Scottsdale salutes MLK legacy at Living the Dream dinner

Ken E. Nwadike Jr. hugs Scottsdale Police Department Assistant Chief Helen Gandara, CCD MLK event chairperson prior to the Jan. 9 Living the Dream event honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Independent Newsmedia/Delarita Ford)

By the end of the night, the hundreds of people who attended Scottsdale’s 24th Annual MLK Jr. Living the Dream dinner Tuesday, Jan. 9 at the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch found themselves embracing in solidarity.

Everybody hugged after a motivational presentation given by guest speaker — Ken E. Nwadike Jr. — known worldwide as the “Free Hugs Guy,” who pronounces his last name as “Y-D-K.”

He shared his story on how he made headlines by hugging strangers while wearing a black T-shirt with “Free Hugs” written in white letters. His peacekeeping efforts and de-escalation of violence at recent protests, riots and political rallies began when he attended the 2014 Boston Marathon.

He wanted to spread love and encourage runners while holding up a “Free Hugs” sign after the 2013 bombing when he wanted to participate in the race but narrowly fell short of qualifying.

“While viewing the devastation of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, I was determined to be a participant in the next race. I failed to qualify by just 23 seconds, so I decided to attend the event in a different way. I provided free hugs to runners as encouragement along the route,” said Mr. Nwadike Jr., a professional runner and director of Hollywood Half Marathon, which is an annual race benefitting Los Angeles youth homeless shelters.

Although his wife and close friends scoffed at his idea at first by saying, “who’s going to hug some random brother?” Nonetheless, he believed his stance to embrace others would combat hate — and make a difference.

Prepared with his sign, camera and tripod in tow, initially, he was hesitantly approached with opened arms by runners. Then, as many passed him by others began to stop for the embrace; some ladies remarked “he’s cute” and backtracked for the hug while some guys even excitedly picked him up in a bear hug. People began hugging him like they knew him along the route.

“Thousands of people passing me from all walks of life — to be able to share that moment with them — excited to see a stranger come over and get a hug,” he recalled.

From that point, he said he knew he wanted to “change the world for the better, spread joy and love. It’s great.”

And, he wanted to continue spreading goodwill to show kids in homeless shelters that they are not different but are loved and can make a difference in the world. He along with his mother and four siblings lived in homeless shelters after his parents split while he was growing up.

“The primary thing I want young people to take away is to be able to celebrate and embrace some of our differences. Step out of your comfort zone,” he said, encouraging experiencing others’ culture and perspective.

“It’s so important that we come together. Don’t get mixed up in hate and separation,” he told the audience. “This is a diverse room. We need more opportunities like this for us to love one another and embrace each other.”

He showed footage of him amidst riots, wedged between police and citizens, in volatile situations.

“I go into riots and protests and try to de-escalate. So much of that came from learning about Dr. Martin Luther King growing up,” he said. “I do this so that my children don’t have to experience some of the racial tensions.”

He called Dr. King his hero and said the work he does is his “moment to step into his shoes,” especially since he was attending simultaneous riots in various states in the past year. The father of three, with twins due in February, spoke of the importance of paving the way for his children like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did; and he stressed the importance of human connection.

“Part of the reason why the violence is taking place is because we have lost that close touch,” said the peace activist. “Human connection breaks down barriers.”

Mr. Nwadike Jr. noted during a one-on-one interview that despite the current climate of sexual harassment and abuse, “hugging is seen as a way to let someone know that you matter, and I see it as a platonic way of greeting. When you can greet someone, to have that physical contact, breaks down barriers.”

He greeted the event’s chairwoman, Helen Gandara, a Scottsdale Police Department assistant chief, with a hug. She said it seemed like she already knew him although they only spoke by phone.

A member of the Community Celebrating Diversity organization, which hosted the event, she and fellow members arranged a program that included welcoming remarks by Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane; Community Celebrating Diversity President Ray Brooks; and ABC 15 Sonoran Live anchor Susan Casper as mistress of ceremonies.

“This is a celebration,” Mr. Brooks said. “We will celebrate together, love each other and honor Dr. King.”

Ms. Casper said Scottsdale’s MLK Jr. yearly dinner is one of the biggest commemorative events held in the state. She reminded attendees that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

“Continue to remind our children and grandchildren of the legacy he left behind,” she said.

Northeast Valley Editorial Assistant Delarita Ford can be reached by e-mail at dford@newszap.com.

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