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Friday February 3rd

'They gave me a lot of love': Support group brings dogs and hugs to campus

<p>UNC first-years AJ Kinrade and Tianyun Zhao play with Roxy the Golden Retriever in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Roxy visits campus with HAPPEE, an organization created to improve college students’ mental health by providing emotional support and outreach.</p>
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UNC first-years AJ Kinrade and Tianyun Zhao play with Roxy the Golden Retriever in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Roxy visits campus with HAPPEE, an organization created to improve college students’ mental health by providing emotional support and outreach.

“Serotonin refill:  achieved,” a student once said to Cathy Emrick. 

Emrick is the mother of a UNC student, and also the founder of a student support group. And as dozens of students pet dogs on the group’s frequent campus puppy strolls, Emrick hopes they gain a similar serotonin refill.

HAPPEE — Hugs and Pups Posse - Encouraging and Empowering uplifts students throughout the week with friendly dogs and humans at a variety of campus locations. 

When the group comes to campus, both “hugs and pups” can be found in “Blue’s Corner," located between Wilson Library and the Undergraduate Library. The name comes from Blue, a long-time serving dog in the program, who first picked out the spot.

First-year Reagan Gulledge said she ran into Blue during her second day on campus and it ended up bringing her a lot more than a friendly pet and a hug. 

She said she was able to meet with the group almost every day last semester because of her schedule, and that she met one of her best friends when meeting with HAPPEE.

“We kept running into each other at HAPPEE, and we found a connection with that,” Gulledge said. “We would make it a routine to go see them together.”

The group was founded in October 2021 by Emrick, UNC parent Michelle Young and community member Noel-Beth Sipe when UNC was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Emrick noticed that students' stress would dissipate when they knelt down to play with a dog at an event for parents on campus. So, she shared her idea to visit students on campus with puppies and offer hugs online. 

Young, who often walked her dog on campus, was introduced to Emrick, and from there, hugs and pups were combined to create HAPPEE. Although Sipe didn't know anyone on campus, she reached out to Emrick because she really wanted to be there to support students.

Emrick said HAPPEE allows students to have a real conversation about stress and mental health. 

“If you’re just walking around campus, you typically don’t see vulnerability plastered across people’s faces. But when they hug us, they’re saying, 'I’m kind of struggling right now,'" Emrick said.

HAPPEE also began to paint rocks and place them in nooks around campus for students to find. Young said the concept behind the rocks was creating a campus community. 

“If it speaks to you, save it. And if it speaks to you, but you feel like somebody else needs it, then share it," she said. 

As the group has expanded, they have placed their efforts in creating on-campus “stations” for students to spend more time interacting with the group and each other. HAPPEE has brought various stations to campus, including a meditation station with a build-your-own mindfulness starter pack, Emrick said. 

“We’re just making a positive impact on student attitude and their mental health,” Young said. “I always tell kids when you see a dog, whether they come and pet or not, they usually will smile, and a smile releases endorphins and endorphins make you feel good.”

First-year Tianyun Zhao is another student who often visits the HAPPEE group on campus.

“They are a really big support for me personally,” Zhao said. “They gave me a lot of love.”

Young and Emrick almost agree on their favorite part of their work, but have one slight difference.

“I think my favorite part is seeing them running towards us with a smile on their face,” Emrick said.

“My favorite part is seeing the students walk away with a smile on their face,” Young said.

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