Over the last decade, suicide has become increasingly prevalent among college students, to the point that it is now one of the leading causes of death amongst this population. While many have wished they could do something about these tragic numbers, one North Carolinian took the initiative to offer herself as a “free mom” to love on and support students at NC State.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Nancy Nelson, the founder of NCSU Free Moms, to discuss the organization and the work that they do loving on kids at NC State University.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. I think we all feel especially affected by the death of a young person. It somehow strikes us all as counter to the natural order of things. When that death is the result of suicide, it is often torturous for those left behind. Well, we have heard all too many stories about student suicides on some of our college campuses in recent years.
Well, one group of mothers decided to get involved and try to make a difference by connecting with and loving on students at their local university. That effort has grown to a weekly outreach at NC State University in Raleigh. Nancy Nelson, founder of the NCSU Free Moms, joins us today to share this beautiful story that is making a difference in the lives of countless students. Nancy Nelson, thanks for joining us today on Family Policy Matters.
NANCY NELSON: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Tell us, what is NCSU Free Moms?
NANCY NELSON: Well, it is an organization, it’s a nonprofit now, that has grown to the point of serving almost 2000 students every week over at North Carolina State campus on two different locations, engineering and main campus. And I started this by myself in 2019, and then we were shut down by COVID, and then we came back weekly again. And last year, it absolutely just exploded, and today we have over 300 volunteers, we’re on eight different campuses or 10, maybe. Almost every couple of weeks, I hear of a new one all across the country, actually, we have a number in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, and we’re so thrilled that people are getting out of their comfort zone and have found a wonderful way to do it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why did you think to start this and 2019? I think many people think that life got tougher on university campuses with COVID. But this was before COVID.
NANCY NELSON: It certainly was, it was, so every week, we have new moms and dads onboarding, that’s what we call it, going through an orientation with me and with someone else on Centennial Campus. And this is the story that I share that between 2015 and 2018, we were all watching social media in our world and going, “oh my goodness,” and watching the struggle of the students, it broke my heart, I just see the darkness and the evil and the hatred and division and the struggling of the young people.
And for three years, I went to our Father. Now this is something I tell students and parents alike all through these years. It’s beautiful. So I tell them that I went to our Father for three years and said, “I want you to use me to make a difference to push back this awful darkness and bring your loving presence and joy and fun and beauty and everything that you are to the young people. But I wouldn’t have any idea how to do this, you’re gonna have to give me a sign.”
And in February of 2019, cleaning up my kitchen one night, listening to a random pastor of mine he said something that changed my life. He said, “God, this is actually going to be the most beautiful decade since the time of Christ because God is allowing the deep evil to be revealed so that He can reveal Himself again as the wonderful Father that he is. And he’s going to use the Baby Boomers because they love God, they love our country, and they love the young people. And I thought, “That’s me!” A few minutes later, he’s speaking to the crowd and said, “All right, Baby Boomers, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone.” I felt a hand on my shoulder and pressure on my left side. And at that moment, the vision came to be like a free mom on campus and just go and offer, I saw a vision of myself standing there, just giving free hugs and free friendship. I didn’t see food at the time, it has come to mean much more.
But I saw this vision, and the next day as I drove near my house about to pass a brand-new neighborhood, I picked up the phone to call a young man on campus, and I said, “Sam, tell me what you think about this. I think God gave me a vision last night of being like a free mom over on campus,” and the very second those words came out of my mouth verbally audibly for the very first time I literally passed a sign that said Mother Nancy Drive. I was sucking air, he goes, “Oh, that’s nice,” and I said, “No, no, you don’t get this. This is life-changing. This is the sign I’ve been praying for for three years.”
So I started with one cake at the student center because online, it said you don’t have to register to go there. That’s the only place on campus you can go without having to register. So I started in that September of that year, kids would walk by I’d say, “Hey, you want some free cake?” And they go, “What?” And I’d say, “Well, I come every week, and I give free cake and free friendship and free hugs.” And by that time, most of the girls went, “Oh, I could use a hug.” So that’s the atmosphere that was created at the beginning. And that very same simple, simple process and atmosphere is still there. We call it a joy bubble. And now we’re serving over 1000 kids on main campus, and they come, it’s just the most beautiful heart enriching.
New volunteers, every time everybody loves it. Saying, “When I left, my spirit was overflowing.” And we know why. Because it’s the frequency of unconditional love. We tell the students that every week we say, “This is a place of unconditional love.” The highest frequency on the planet is unconditional love that changes from the inside out from the heart outward. And they go, “Yeah,” so then I love to joke, I just go light. And I say, “You know, every time you walk through our Free Moms with all that we have to offer, we hope that this frequency goes all the way through, and I might chapter just lightly and smile, and I sit, and it will lift you up, help carry you through the week and remind you to come back next week. And then I wink at him, and then we all laugh and have a hilarious roar together. It’s really beautiful.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have a favorite? You’ve given us a couple of good examples. But do you have a favorite response or interaction you’ve had with a student?
NANCY NELSON: Gosh, there’s so many. I’ll tell you one of my favorites this year. The very first time, we are there when the students are there. We give them a week to get settled into their routine, and then we start up and usually have between 25 and 45 adults there loving on the kids, being a listening ear, and all these things. But my favorite story, probably from this year, was a young girl came up the very first day beautiful young thing from Massachusetts with teary eyed, red, her little rim under her eye was red from crying. And she had her two friends. And she looked and came straight up to me, and she said, “I have a story for you.” And I looked at her friends, and I said, “Oh, this is gonna be a good story.” And I chuckled, and I looked back, and I said, “Tell me your story.” She said, “I’m from Massachusetts, and I’m a freshman. And last year, my mom brought me to Raleigh to see if I wanted to go to school here. And I had gone through the tour like other schools, there was nothing about Raleigh or State that made me think I wanted to go here. But we happened to walk by your tables on a Thursday afternoon on our way back to the car.” And she said, “We saw this free mom free hug thing that really got to me, and you came over, and you spoke to me and gave me a hug.” And she said, “What you didn’t know is that my grandma had just died, and you look just like her. She had the little white thing that like there, and she had the short reddish, brownish, crappy hair.” And she said, “From that point on, I knew I was supposed to come to this school.”
And last week, I invited her to share that story with the people onboarding. We had 20, about 20 of them. And right as we walked over there, her mother FaceTimed in, and I got to meet her mother named Sue, up in Massachusetts. I said, “Sue, would you like to hear your daughter share the story with all the volunteers?” So she got to watch her daughter from a distance share the story. We greeted her mom online, it was just so life-filled, just so wonderful. That’s one of my favorite stories. My other favorites were, real quick, is that there’s a countdown clock in one of the dorms for the Free Moms. So at one o’clock, when it’s time for our main campus to start up, it rings to remind everybody to come. And at four o’clock, whoever gets back resets it for the whole next week. So they’re waiting for us. And they tell us that we’re helping, they tell us we’re holding the campus together. They tell us that they change their schedule to come just so they can be a part and play with the dogs or whatever. And it’s not just special for them. But it’s so special for every one of the volunteers who can give unconditionally.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Congratulations. Those are some amazing stories. So talk about how things have morphed because I know you said you can walk on there with a cake, one person. But obviously, if you have 2000 students now, there’s some logistics that you’ve needed to consider as far as getting permits or whatever. Talk a little bit about how that has worked practically.
NANCY NELSON: Last year, we began a student organization, it’s called Students Supporting Free Moms. So they’re the ones that make reservations for us now. Because of our size and all, we have actually moved to Wolf Plaza, which is about two football fields away from where we were under an awning, that was our favorite place because it was weather-independent, but honestly, this place is fine. But it’s become a production. So we’ve had to buy tents and equipment and weights and all kinds of stuff. And it really is a production, but yeah, the first year before COVID, probably loving on and hugging, I don’t know, maybe up to 100, and then the second year, of few of our friends joined, one in particular full-time. And then we were loving on to maybe 200-400 by the end of the second year. And then last year hit.
One day, my husband, who’s an artist, and I, who were out of town, they moved to another spot at the end under the awning there behind the student center. And they ran out of food. And I texted when it was over. I said, “How did it go today?” They said, “We ran out of food.” So I said, “Cecilia, you’re a part of that parent group. I’m a grandma, you’re the mom, would you be willing to like just put one little post and see what happens? Because we could use some help.” Well, it went viral. It’s still going viral. We started this Facebook group in March, we have already 3500 people on it now. It’s called NCSU Free Moms, people can check us out there, and it started growing. And where the faculty had been walking by, up until about October of last school year, thinking, “Oh, aren’t they sweet? Isn’t this cute?” I knew it was much more. But that’s fine. They then began to go, “Oh, no, you’re growing too fast. And this is not a place for this many students,” and etc. And so that’s when we started working toward a student organization.
And it continued going viral, by Christmas of last year, we had 100 kids waiting in line when we open the lines at one o’clock. And by March, we had 200 kids, so that we opened up another place on campus of the most stressed-filled area called Centennial, or its engineering campus, and started is over there. And as of this week, they were serving over 700 servings, we were serving probably 1100 servings, well you kind of lose count, honestly. But we had enough, we have, in fact, we had a little bit extra yesterday. And so it’s just continued because it’s word of mouth. And mostly Facebook, we have an Instagram, but those are the two are the word of mouth, and Facebook are the ways that we’re getting so many, between 20 and 40 people contacting us every week saying, “Oh, I’ve heard about this, I want to do this, tell me how to do it.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Tell us how people who are listening to this who think this is a great idea, but they would like to maybe start it at their own school or find out if there is something happening there. Tell us what they need to do.
NANCY NELSON: First of all, within another week or so we’re going to have a website called NCSUFreeMoms.org. Okay, but right now, in fact, you might be able to go ahead and still find it there, with documentaries. We were on TV a lot last week, every year. I mean, last year, whenever students were dying, the media would come back to us, which would then grow us even more. But overall, people can email if anyone is interested in information or becoming a part they can email us at NCSUFreeMoms@Gmail.com. And if they do that, we have administrators who are all volunteers. Nobody gets paid. But we’re laying it down because it’s such a beautiful mission. And so they will get back, the admins will get back, and we have now are on App State, UNCG, College of Charleston, JMU, Chapel Hill is going to be beginning soon, Charlotte is going to start in the near future. Carroll University in Carroll, Wisconsin, started one yesterday.
So every, every little bit, couple of weeks or something, we hear about a new university starting. I’ve even heard of them starting that didn’t contact us. We are here. We’re not responsible for any other universities or colleges or any other place. But we’re a wonderful place that people want to come and onboard hear they can get a taste and see what it’s like and then take it back to their school. We’re happy for that to happen or through our email, I’ll be glad to talk to them on the phone as I do or have a Zoom call with those in their area who might want to start it at some place in their area. Because as I mentioned earlier, it’s just a beautiful vehicle to help people who have God’s love in their heart to be able to share that with the world. As I say, you can’t give away anything you don’t have. So the people who remain and are called to this are people who have been changed by the love of God, and we are ever so gently pushing back the dark powerfully, whatever you want to call it, pushing back the darkness, and the light intensifies every week,
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, Nancy Nelson, founder of NCSU Free Moms, thank you so much for seeing the need and doing something about it. And of course, being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
NANCY NELSON: It was totally my pleasure.
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