Members of the LGBTIQ+ community were moved to tears at the Pittsburgh Pride parade this week, with 44-year-old Howie Dittman offering 'Free Dad Hugs' in a kind gesture of inclusion and love.
The local father, who recently started a community group called “Helping Butler County” in the hope of assisting the less fortunate in his community, took to the Pride Parade wearing a 'Free Dad Hugs' t-shirt he bought online - knowing full well that many parade attendees would have fraught relationships with their own parents.
The results were moving, to say the least, with some parade-goers crying as they fell into his arms.
Sharing his story on social media, Bittman wrote: "A handful of us went to the Pittsburgh Pride Parade today, sporting our FREE DAD HUGS and FREE MUM HUGS t-shirts. We gave out hundreds of hugs. Hundreds."
"Some were super happy hugs. But others were like these two... and there were way too many like them," he wrote, referring to the images of him hugging two emotional marchers.
"Let me tell you about these two."
"He was kicked out at 19 when his parents found out. They haven't spoken to him since. He cried on my shoulder. Sobbed. Squeezed me with everything he had. I felt a tiny bit of that pain that he carries with him every minute of every day. He was abandoned because of who he loves."
He continued: "Her story? I don't know the specifics. But I know that she saw me from across the street. I wasn't paying attention. By the time she got to me, she had tears in her eyes. She stood in front of me and looked up at me, with a look of sadness and helplessness that I'll never forget.
"She hugged me with everything she had. And I hugged her back. She held on for so long, melting into me, and thanked me endlessly. And I can't stop thinking about her. What she must be going through with her family... the ones who are supposed to be there for her no matter what. Who does she go to when she needs advice on love, money or just life?
"Who does she share old memories with that only her parents would have been there for? What are her holidays like? How often does she hope for that phone call, with unconditional love on the other end? I don't know her story. But it doesn't feel like a huge leap to assume she's lost those who should love her the most and forever."
Bittman continued, writing of his frustration that some parents fail to accept their children for who they are.
"Imagine that, parents. Imagine that your child feels so lost from you that they sink into the arms of a complete stranger and sob endlessly just because that stranger is wearing a shirt offering hugs from a dad. Think of the depths of their pain. Try to imagine how deep those cuts must be."
"Please don't be the parent of a child that has to shoulder that burden. I met way too many of them, of all ages, today."