We welcome another beautiful blog from Julie Smith Turner, our Free Mom Hugs South Carolina Chapter leader. She had a powerful visit with Sara and Parker on the Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour stop in Columbia.

We had Sara and Parker for less than 24 hours over Memorial Day weekend
but I knew we wanted to offer a variety of events while they were here.

First, I wanted to do something especially for the local LGBTQ community.
So I reached out to our local LGBTQ community center to see if we could
pull together a small event in a known safe space. The result was a Friday
evening meet and greet with light refreshments at the Harriet Hancock
LGBT Center.
It was the first time the center had hosted an event since they
moved to virtual services for COVID. It was so fun and emotional. We
were joined by the center’s namesake, longtime local activist Harriet
Hancock and also Mandy Carter, an LGBTQ and civil rights activist from North

Harriet Hancock LGBT Center

With the event ending early in the evening, we impulsively headed
out to the city’s new Pride bar and caught the tail end of a rousing drag
show. With the bar packed for the show, we gave out lots of hugs and
Sara and Parker had to hit the road for Atlanta by 1pm on Saturday, so we
planned the second event for 10:30am Saturday morning. The concept was
to feature several local speakers along with Sara and Parker to educate
about the local LGBTQ community and to increase awareness of Free Mom
Hugs. The event was hosted in our city’s award-winning Richland Library in the
main auditorium.

Parker Cunningham speaking at Richland Library, Columbia, SC.

The public event featured Katharine Allen, Director of Research for Historic Columbia
who talked about the LGBTQ
Columbia History Initiative
which launched in 2019. She shared an insightful
presentation of photos, personal recollections and excerpts from LGBTQ
media drawn from their interactive project which documented the
stories of the LGBTQ+ community through the creation and dissemination
of oral histories, historic site interpretation, and archival collections. Next,
Harriet spoke to the group of about 50 attendees about how and why the
LGBTQ community became established in Columbia since the
first public Pride march on the state capital in 1990. Mandy, who served as
Harriet’s mentor in establishing the city’s first Pride march, also shared her
experiences and hopes as an activist in the south. And the last part of the evening
Parker and Sara both shared their stories with the group.

Our amazing friends in Columbia, South Carolina

What was the best part of Sara (and Parker’s) visit?
Selfishly, the best part was being able to meet Sara and Parker. I have been
involved with Free Mom Hugs for about three years, so I’ve only seen them
and spoken to them virtually. After they spoke Saturday morning, I
noticed that Sara’s original handwritten Free Mom Hugs button was still on
the podium, so I picked it up. In my hand I held the plastic button that
drove this national groundswell. It was a physical reminder to me that with
enthusiasm, love and persistence one person can truly do great things that

The button that sparked a movement!

I missed them the second they walked away. But that was
tempered by what we had experienced together in Columbia. We had these
amazing events where people came and we all laughed and cried. It was a few
moments of pure joy in a rough stretch of history. I was proud that those who came
had the opportunity to learn about people and groups in our community who had
been working for LGBTQ South Carolinians over the years and that we were
able to shine a spotlight on Historic Columbia’s powerful LGBTQ history

The tour mattered for so many reasons. We can’t always get people out to
local Pride events so this was a wonderful way to introduce Sara, the
LGBTQ community and our nonprofit to the general public. It happened
during a tough time in the south as hateful legislation dominated and
trampled LGBTQ rights and swayed public perception. But I was
equally proud to show off my hometown to Sara and Parker. We have done
— and will continue to do amazing work here — and Free Mom Hugs will be part of it.

The work continues!

If you would like to join us, or support future tours and other Free Mom Hugs programs, please head to our website! We have resources, ways to connect to chapters, and options to support our work financially.


We are excited to share a blog from our Georgia Chapter Leader, Kelli Blundell who tells us about her experience as a Tour stop for the Don’t Hide Your Pride Free Mom Hugs Tour.

Our first day started at The Village Church where Sara and Parker were interviewed by Pastor Ray Waters and teaching Pastor Stan Mitchell.  Parker even sang two songs.  The church and its congregation welcomed us with open arms and is one of the most supportive and affirming churches we have ever attended.  After church, we were all invited to Pastor Ray and wife Jane Waters’ house, where we had lunch and continued lively and meaningful fellowship which was full of love and acceptance. We told each other our stories and we laughed, cried, and then laughed until we cried. 

Parker, Sara and our Free Mom Hugs Georgia chapter at The Village Church.

That evening, we went to Lips Atlanta for dinner and a drag show.  Sara and Parker were able to speak about the Free Mom Hug organization sharing our mission.  We enjoyed food, music, each other’s company and of course, QUEENS!  Lips Atlanta has always welcomed the Georgia Chapter with open arms and has supported us from the very beginning.  

Volunteers hugging at LIPS Atlanta!

 On our second day, the Georgia chapter went to Highland Bakery to have brunch with Sara and Parker.  Everyone was encouraged to come by to introduce themselves.  Highland Bakery is LGBTQ owned and affirming. We were so grateful to be able to spend time there together again. For most it, we were sad to have to say goodbye to Sara and Parker.

Parker and Jane Waters at Highland Bakery

The next day Sara and Parker set off to Savannah for the last night in Georgia. Kelli, one of our chapter leaders and Shaun, a volunteer with us left for Savannah as well to continue the tour. In Savannah we went to the Starland Yards where a table set up with two Savannah area leaders and plenty of volunteers. People were curious and stopped by the table to mingle. Sara and Parker were the most gracious guests and enjoyed speaking to everyone to spread our message. 

Our amazing Georgia volunteers!

We left Starland Yards and headed to Club One, the only gay club in Savannah. When we arrived, there were very few people and not a lot going on. But that didn’t stop Sara from reaching out to those who were there to talk to them and make a connection. When Terry, the karaoke goddess arrived, we SANG! We all sang Don’t Stop Believing by Journey! We were AWESOME! We left that place a little better for having just been there. 

Don’t Stop Believing!

Here are a couple of questions we asked our volunteers about their time with Sara and Parker:

What was the best part of your visit?

How do you even begin to pick a “best part?”  The highlight for sure was just getting to spend time with Sara and Parker talking about why the Free Mom Hug organization is so dear to all of us.  We were able to talk about our “why” and Sara validated all of our feelings.  She was able to see how important we thought this mission is to all of us. She made us feel like we are an important part of making an impact for change in Georgia.  And I will tell you—getting to hear Parker sing was pretty special too! – LeeAnn

My favorite part was the lifetime connection I feel like I made with a lot of very special people and especially Sara and Parker. They are so genuine and loving that you can just feel the love ooze off them. You just can’t help but fall in love with them both. My new BFF, Parker, and I bonded over silliness and mirth. I will always cherish the time we had. – Kelli 

The best part about Sara and Parker’s visit was that we were able to come together to empower and show so much love to many different people. I was honestly star struck. This whole experience has filled my heart with joy. I can truly say that the best part is the organization as a whole.  I definitely stand taller, show up and show out more now than I ever have before. – Kati

How did you feel when they left?

Oh my—there were so many emotions!  It was such an honor to have the opportunity to meet Sara and Parker.  We were inspired to do our best to support as many people as possible.  We were enthusiastic about representing Free Mom Hugs and planning our calendar for June Pride month—with new leadership in place and growing our membership.  It was bittersweet when Sara and Parker left—but several of our members went with her to Savannah to continue the tour.  We learned so much and are excited to keep the momentum going. – LeeAnn

When we were leaving Club One, our Uber was about 15 minutes out and Sara and Parker insisted on staying with us until it arrived. That extra 15 minutes really solidified the love I had formed in such a short time for these two humans. It was so bittersweet to part with them. On one hand I was sad that it would be a while before I would get to see them again. One the other hand, I knew they were going to continue their journey and spreading more love to the leaders, volunteers and the community we love. Plus, I get to look forward to the next time we meet. – Kelli

When they left I wish I would had more time with them. Their visit opened my mind a little more and the fire within me to share hugs and uplifting messages grew. I am so honored to be a part of this big presence. – Kati

Changing the world one hug at a time!

Why is the Free Mom Hugs Tour important?

For our chapter, the tour is so important because we got to witness firsthand the importance of the Free Mom Hugs organization.  We were contacted by a young man who told us a bit of his story about not feeling accepted.  He drove all the way from another state and was welcomed by all his new “moms”.  There were laughs, tears and lots of loving conversation that bonded us together.  I don’t think he realized he would end up with so many of us loving and supporting him.  What a great feeling!  This tour really embraced the FMH mission of “empowering the world to embrace the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education, and conversation.”  We are so honored to be able to do just that. 

Overall, the FMH Tour is important to connect the chapters, the leaders, the volunteers, and the community to the bigger picture. It helps to ignite the already smoldering fire in the hearts of those that love this organization. It helps us feel like we’re all in this together. From the planning, to watching the tour happen through other’s pictures, videos, and stories on the individual chapter’s pages. We’re in this together and we’re all important, every single one of us. 

This was our 5th annual Free Mom Hugs tour across America. To support future tours or our programs and initiatives at the state level, you can become a monthly donor or provide a one-time gift. Any dollar amount you want to give helps us further the mission of Free Mom Hugs.

donate today!

Guest Blogger

We welcome our guest blogger, Sunshine West, who will give us a behind the scenes look at one person’s experience with the Free Mom Hugs Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour.

The Free Mom Hugs family gathered in Knoxville, Tn today in a queer owned coffee shop full of pop culture memorabilia and rainbows. I didn’t consider that there may be protesters outside, but when I walked up to the door there were two young men sitting by the entrance, bibles open. Before I could decide how to feel about their presence, I noticed a mom talking to the boys, and in the next moment another mom was welcoming me with rainbow stickers and pronoun pins. The next thing I know, I’m in line to buy a lemonade from a nice queer lady. I didn’t know anyone at the event so I decided to sit with someone new. I ended up meeting Allison, who was at her first Free Mom Hugs event. We had a great time getting to know one another. 

Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour Stop, Knoxville, TN.

Sara told her story and then a couple other people talked about their community, and next was told the best engagement story I’ve ever heard. It all felt like a family reunion where I was meeting a bunch of distant cousins. Mundane and simple, yet the air was flecked with gold, and time stood still as we all laughed and celebrated our community together. 

Sara speaking at South Press Coffee House in Knoxville, TN.

Here, I don’t have to defend my existence. 

Here, I don’t have to hide any part of me. 

Here, I feel safe to be myself. 

Here, I feel valued and loved for who I am. 

Sunshine West

Press Release

Grant Thornton names Free Mom Hugs as its new Purple Paladin

Nonprofit strives to create allies who support the LGBTQIA+ community

CHICAGO, June 1, 2022—Grant Thornton LLP, one of America’s largest accounting, tax and advisory firms, has named Free Mom Hugs to its Purple Paladin program, which helps emerging nonprofit organizations move from “start-up to unstoppable.” As part of the program, Grant Thornton provides funding, business advice and volunteer support, while also helping nonprofits raise awareness of their work and mission. 

With chapters in all 50 states and initiatives across the globe, Free Mom Hugs is on a mission to create allies who support the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education and conversation. 

In addition to a library of resources, the organization provides opportunities to demonstrate allyship by participating in local events around the country such as pride parades, holiday gatherings and advocacy activities. 

Further, Grant Thornton is currently helping Free Mom Hugs develop an ‘allyship hub’ on its website, providing resources so people can become better allies to the LGBTQIA+ community ― at home, work and school.

“Somewhere out there someone needs us.”

Sara Cunningham founded Free Mom Hugs, after embarking on a long journey towards acceptance of her son, Parker, after he came out as gay. Her regret for the pain that it caused led her on a mission to ensure other children wouldn’t go through the suffering her son endured when she didn’t immediately accept him. 

To show her support for Parker and others, Cunningham began by attending a pride parade wearing a homemade “Free Mom Hugs” button. She stood on the street with open arms and hugged individuals who weren’t accepted by their parents. Her first hug was with a young woman who said it had been four years since she’d been hugged by her mom. Devasted by this, Cunningham vowed to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community loudly and proudly.

“Somewhere out there someone needs us,” said Cunningham. “We’re here to help people simply show up. And not just moms ― dads, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends ― anyone who is looking for a way to demonstrate their allyship and support the community. We provide those opportunities and are a loving presence that shows up where needed and when others don’t.”

Grant Thornton CEO Brad Preber echoes Cunningham’s sentiment: “Free Mom Hugs is an organization that is helping build a better world by changing lives, one hug at a time. At Grant Thornton, we share Free Mom Hugs’ vision for a more respectful, enriched community where all individuals are safe, loved and accepted. It’s simple: We all become stronger when all of our voices are heard.”

Grant Thornton named Free Mom Hugs to its Purple Paladin program in consultation with summer interns at the firm, who researched and proposed worthwhile organizations to support.

Grant Thornton accepts nominations of nonprofits for its Purple Paladin program at www.grantthornton/

To learn more about Free Mom Hugs, visit To donate, visit

Free Mom Hugs joins 11 other nonprofits that Grant Thornton previously selected as Purple Paladins: WeaveTales, Warrior Reunion Foundation, Go Team Therapy Dogs, Find Your Anchor, Foster Nation, Hope in a Box, Weird Enough Productions, Invisible Hands Deliver, Pal Experiences, Sneakers for Soldiers and Coming Up Rosies. 

  • WeaveTales is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps refugees of all kinds share their stories via books, exhibits, films and other channels. To learn more, visit  
  • Warrior Reunion Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that reconnects combat veterans and their families via life-changing reunion experiences. All events are provided at no cost to those who attend. To learn more, visit
  • Go Team Therapy Dogs is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that produces well-trained therapy dogs and places them at disaster sites, hospitals, and other places where they can offer comfort and care. To learn more, visit
  • Find Your Anchor is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. To help people who are struggling to find hope, the organization creates and distributes boxes of curated items known as “anchors.” To learn more, visit
  • Foster Nation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps former foster youth overcome the challenges associated with ‘aging out’ of the foster-care system. To learn more, visit
  • Hope in a Box is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides educators with literature, detailed curriculums and coaching to improve classroom environments for LGBTQIA+ students. To learn more, visit
  • Weird Enough Productions is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that develops free, interactive online content designed to combat media misrepresentations of minority communities. The organization is best known for its hallmark comic book series, “The UnCommons.” To learn more, visit
  • Invisible Hands Deliver is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that taps more than 12,000 volunteers to deliver groceries, prescriptions, and other necessities to people vulnerable to COVID-19 and facing hunger insecurity — including the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised. To learn more, visit
  • Pal Experiences is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps people with non-visible disabilities — such as autism — have more inclusive experiences at museums, entertainment venues and sporting events. To learn more, visit
  • Sneakers for Soldiers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides properly-fitted athletic shoes to deployed combat troops in all branches of the military. To learn more, visit
  • Coming Up Rosies is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides “smile kits” to hospitals so children — particularly those suffering from hair loss — can engage in therapeutic art activities to create custom head scarves, neck scarves and superhero capes based on their own unique designs. To learn more, visit

Grant Thornton’s Purple Paladins program derives its name from the word paladin, a champion of a cause. Grant Thornton and its professionals have donated more than $650,000 for Purple Paladin nonprofits, and more than 450 Grant Thornton professionals have volunteered support to the firm’s Purple Paladins.

To learn more about Purple Paladins, or to nominate a nonprofit for potential support, visit Grant Thornton’s website:

About Grant Thornton LLP

Grant Thornton LLP (Grant Thornton) is one of America’s largest audit, tax and advisory firms — and the U.S. member firm of the Grant Thornton International Ltd global network. We go beyond the expected to make business more personal and build trust into every result. With revenues of $1.97 billion and 51 offices nationwide, Grant Thornton is a community of more than 9,000 problem solvers who value relationships and are ready to help public and private organizations of all sizes and industries create more confident futures. Because, for us, how we serve matters as much as what we do. 

“Grant Thornton” refers to Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd (GTIL). GTIL and the member firms are not a worldwide partnership. Services are delivered by the member firms. GTIL and its member firms are not agents of, and do not obligate, one another and are not liable for one another’s acts or omissions.