A Pennsylvania father wearing a “Free Dad Hugs” shirt at his local Pride parade never would have thought that his small act of giving strangers hugs would leave such a large impact on the world.
On Sunday, Scott “Howie” Dittman tagged along to the Pittsburgh Pride Parade with his friend Denna Hays, who was attending with Free Mom Hugs, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality and gives out hugs at Pride events.
Speaking to PEOPLE, Dittman says he decided to attend and wear a “Free Dad Hugs” shirt because he believed that “dad hugs might be even more needed” — and it turns out he was right.
While there, the friends gave out hundreds of hugs to parade attendees, but it was Dittman’s shirt that particularly resonated with many, as attendees approached him throughout the day with smiles, tears and heartbreaking stories to share.
After the emotional encounters, Dittman, a father of two, tells PEOPLE that he came home to his wife to tell her about the “amazing” event, but had trouble grasping the fact that so many parents had abandoned their kids because of who they loved.
“It was amazing, and I’m really pissed off. I’m not okay with this,” he recalls telling his wife. “How are these people parents? What are you doing? How can you treat your children like that just because of who they love? Even if you don’t agree with it, how can you just cut them off?”
“They have to build a new structure when they’re missing the very foundation of what is supposed to be their support system,” Dittman adds.
That anger soon developed into inspiration and Dittman, who volunteers with a local charitable organization called Helping Butler County, posted about two particular encounters from the parade on his Facebook in hopes to make a difference in his community.
In a powerful side-by-side photo, Dittman was captured in an embrace with two people — one man in his 50s and one woman in her early 20s.
Dittman says the young woman noticed his shirt from across the street and went out of her way to seek him out.
“I turned around and this young woman was standing there in front of me with tears in her eyes,” he explains, adding on Facebook that she had “a look of sadness and helplessness that I’ll never forget.”
“She just threw her arms around me and started thanking me,” he tells PEOPLE. “She was having a blast and she saw my shirt and instantly, something drew a switch in her that she was like, ‘I have to cross the street and get a hug from this guy — a complete stranger.'”
With that hug, Dittman says he truly began to understand the impact of his shirt that day.
“That’s when I started realizing … this is more than just coming down here and sharing smiles and hugs,” he explains. “Some of these individuals, it’s gonna mean more to them.”
Later during the parade, Dittman crossed paths with the man who revealed that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was 19. “The other gentleman came up, and he sobbed for so long. That’s 30 years that his parents haven’t spoken to him since they found out,” Dittman notes.
On Facebook, the father of two added that during their hug, he “felt a tiny bit of that pain that he carries with him every minute of every day.”
At the end of his post, Dittman also encouraged any parents who followed him to be more mindful about abandoning their children.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
Since opening up about his experience, Dittman tells PEOPLE that his post has gone viral and thousands of users from across the world have reached out to him on social media.
Some of them have shared their own stories of abandonment, while others have told him that they were suicidal and his post inspired them to keep living. Dittman says he even received messages from parents who thanked him for opening their eyes and encouraging them to reunite with their estranged family members.
“It’s humbling, but it’s sad,” he explains of the impact. “It’s sad that these people needed a stupid social media post to have eyes opened and to feel welcomed. It’s sad that some guy in some small town western Pennsylvania is having that much of an impact when that impact should’ve been made and when they shouldn’t have even needed it because they weren’t abandoned in the first place.”
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“That’s what makes me so angry and makes me so sad, is that they’re in that situation in the first place,” he continues.
“As happy as I am that these individuals are now going to press on and families are being reunited, the sheer number of them that were destroyed in the first place is inexcusable,” Dittman adds. “I don’t understand but I’m hoping it’ll change some things for a lot of people and it seems like it has and that’s all that matters.”
And while he hopes that this will continue to move forward, Dittman wants to stress to parents that even those children who seem fine on the exterior now are still in need of their “foundational support system.”
“They might think that the child has moved on and is fine without them — if they’re even keeping tabs on them from a distance,” he says. “They’re not okay. There is not a single person in this world that doesn’t need the foundational love and support of their parent. It should be unconditional, it should be fully trusting, where they feel the safest.”
“That relationship is so meaningful, no matter how broken it is,” he adds. “It’s never too late.”