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Who Needs a Hugger?

Rochester-area ski club mixes recreation and pleasure

By Christine Green

Tony Eckel, 60, of Pittsford is weary of all the time we spend on our phones and in front of computer screens on social media.

“Nowadays, socialization is so tied up with the electronic stuff, and it really doesn’t allow you to get close to people or to interact, really,” Eckel said. He prefers to socialize with his friends in person and that’s why he joined the Huggers Ski Club two years ago.

The Huggers came together in 1969 when a group of General Dynamics’ employees who all enjoyed skiing decided to formalize their mutual interest by creating a club.

Today, Eckel is just one of the over 300 paid members of the Huggers. They don’t just ski anymore either.

You can find Huggers snowboarding, kayaking, playing pickleball, camping, hiking, biking and walking. It doesn’t end with sporting activities, though. Huggers also enjoy euchre, happy hour gatherings, picnics, and holiday parties.

“We are a group of people who are looking for social outlets to get together and enjoy each other. Discussions, games … I mean we do everything.”

“Everything” also includes volunteering in the community.

In 2017, Brighton resident and Hugger volunteer committee chairman Steve Anderson, 63, felt like he and his fellow club members had lots of time to offer as volunteers. After all, “volunteering is meant to be another form of socializing,” he said.

Anderson began his efforts by recruiting fellow Huggers to help out with a Special Olympics snowshoeing event last winter at Swain. Over 130 donned snowshoes to participate in the games and the Huggers helped get participants ready for each competition as well and assisted with the medal presentations.

“We had a blast,” he told 55 Plus. This year, Anderson and friends plan to help out the Special Olympics again by volunteering with the local alpine skiing event as well.

Anderson and several other club members are also bell ringers with the Salvation Army during the holiday season.

Beyond expectations

But the Hugger volunteers extend themselves all year, not just during the holiday and winter months. Several Huggers participate in a student-tutoring program at the Notre Dame Learning Center at the Charles Settlement House in Rochester.

The Notre Dame Learning Center was established in 2004 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame to assist Rochester children with their academic skills. Volunteers at the center work one-on-one with city children to help them boost their grades and study habits as well as to inspire confidence and a sense of accomplishment. They serve over 40 children each semester from area private and public schools.

Jo Emerson, 67, of Pittsford joined the Huggers 10 years ago when a friend convinced her to join the group for a summer bike ride. She’s been an active Hugger ever since. Emerson volunteers once a week at the Learning Center for a few hours at a time.

She tutors elementary students Alejandro Ramos and Malyk Douglas of Rochester. She helps them with math and reading and has “literally fallen in love with these kids,” Emerson said.

“We believe deeply in giving back to the children of the city of Rochester,” said Emerson. “It is my civic duty to help. It means a lot to me to be able to step in and maybe make a difference in the life of a child.”

Hugger Steve Sussman, 71, also from Pittsford, donates his time as a tutor to the Notre Dame Learning Center.

Like Anderson and Emerson, he was eager to start the Huggers volunteer program. He knew the Huggers, many of whom are retired, had the resources to form a strong group of volunteers.

“We said, ‘It’d be nice to give back to the community or do something for the children in the Rochester school system. We have the skills and the time and it just seemed like an appropriate thing to do.”

He gets lots of personal fulfillment from his time at the center.

“A little bit of help now to show the children that they actually can do the work seems to give them confidence and they seem to really enjoy it,” she said.

Sister Evelyn Breslin is the executive director at the Notre Dame Learning Center and appreciates all that the Huggers and other volunteers do for the kids they work with.

“The wonderful volunteers at Notre Dame Learning Center not only meet the academic needs of the students but also are caring, loving, sensitive men and women helping to build the confidence and self-esteem of the child he or she is tutoring,” Breslin said.

Anderson hopes as the Huggers’ 50th anniversary approaches this year, other Hugger Ski Club members will join him and his committee as they work to expand the group’s volunteer efforts. The Notre Dame Learning Center is always in need of tutors, and Anderson welcomes other volunteering ideas.

To learn more about the Huggers Ski Club, visit huggersskiclub.org.