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Local teens offer free hugs
A group of local teens offer free hugs in honor of Portal High School junior Cohen Addison Jones, who died unexpectedly earlier this month. The "Free Hugs" campaign is a concept that gained worldwide popularity after a video was posted on the Internet. Before his death, Jones had planned launching a local Free Hugs campaign. His friends are acting out his plans in his honor, as well as trying to raise money to establish a scholarship in his name. - photo by SPECIAL PHOTO
The signs say "Free hugs." There's no catch. Teenagers honoring a friend who died recently simply want to remember Cohen Addison Jones for his bubbling personality, his desire to make people smile, and his compassionate spirit.
    They also hope to raise money for a scholarship in honor of the Portal High School junior, but donations are optional. The hugs are free, and no one will ask for anything in return, said Joey Baynes, 16, who began the local effort to spread cheer in Cohen's name.
    The group will gather around noon at the Statesboro Mall, he said.
    "Cohen and I had the idea (about launching a local Free Hugs campaign) a few weeks before he passed away," he said. "I planned it with Cohen because we both knew the full story behind it, and he liked to see people smile."
    The Free Hugs campaign "originated in Australia with a man with no job who liked to see people smile," he said. "Now, it's all over the world."
    The Free Hugs campaign began around 2004, according to Internet web site
    According to the site, a video on YouTube was released in September and by November had been viewed by over six million people.  In the video, a man named "Juan Mann" (allegedly a pseudonym)  walks through Sydney, Australia's  Pitt Street Mall holding up a sign with the words FREE HUGS written on it.
    "Initial distrust of Juan's motivations gives way to a gradual accretion of people willing to be hugged, with other huggers (male and female) helping distribute them. After some time, security guards, then police tell them they must stop, as Mann has not obtained public liability insurance for his actions]. Mann and his companions then began a petition which reached 10,000 signatures. At that point, the authorities walk away, but not before being hugged by some of the participants," according to the web site.
    Jones and his friends wanted to spread the message of love for humankind here, Baynes said.
    "We want to spread happiness," he said. "The donation thing (for the scholarship in Jones' name) came about last minute. We were going to give the money to his parents, but they said they didn't need it."
    Jones' stepsister Brittany Jones suggested the scholarship idea. Any money raised for the scholarship will be turned over to Jones' father, he said. Others agreed.
    But while the donation for a scholarship in Jones' name is part of the local effort, no one asks for money when offering free hugs, he said.
    "If we touch (people) inside, they come back and donate," he said, explaining that a donation jar is kept near where Jones' friends are gathered. "But we don't really ask them. The hugs are free."
    The concept of offering free hugs is reflective of Jones' personality, Baynes said.
    "He was a nice guy, but he made mistakes like everybody else," he said. "He always had a touch on anyone he talked to. He would always help you, even if you didn't really need it."
    "This is a really good idea," said another friend and Free Hugs organizer, Jamee McGee, a 15-year-old Southeast Bulloch High School student. She met Jones when he attended her school; he was most recently a student at Portal Middle/High School.
    "Cohen always liked to see people smile," she said. "He brought happiness to everyone. He would always cheer you up. He was so funny, and so fun."
    That's why she, Baynes and a host of his friends have spent a number of afternoons holding "free hugs" signs at the Statesboro Mall and other locations, she said.
    Baynes said the first day, there were about 50 teens offering free hugs. "The next day there were about 10," he said. He expects about 50 to show up today.
    "There are also signs that say 'honk for Cohen,'" he said.
    The effort isn't always easy. While participants are trying to spread peace and love, as well as honor a friend who stood for those values, others don't understand or respect their efforts, Baynes said.
    Many people step away and warn "don't touch  me," he said. Some question their motives and hurl labels. One group of young college-age men said some very hurtful things that left him open-mouthed in shock, he admitted.
    "We get a lot of negative looks, but more positive feedback than negative," he said.
    While Jones wasn't able to see to fruition his idea of holding a local Free Hugs  campaign, he did hold a small one at his school in Portal, he said.
    Jones died unexpectedly earlier this month. Portal Police are investigating the reasons for his death, said Chief Jason Sapp.
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