"The ripple effect has just been astounding," says Sara Cunningham, founder of Free Mom Hugs
Sara Cunningham loves being an officiant at weddings, but she encountered a heartbreaking theme while she performed same-sex unions: Sometimes, disapproving parents didn’t attend their children’s nuptials. So in July of last year, Cunningham, of Oklahoma City, thought of a way to help, offering to be a proxy mom when biological moms shunned their children’s weddings.
“If you need a mom to attend your same sex wedding because your biological mom won’t, call me,” Cunningham posted on Facebook. “I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan.”
For a touch of fun, she added: “I’ll even bring the bubbles.”
The response was overwhelming, Cunningham tells PEOPLE. “Countless” couples wanted a proxy mom, she says, and other supportive moms and dads offered to be surrogate parents at same-sex weddings.
“The ripple effect has just been astounding,” says Cunningham, 55, who in 2014 founded Free Mom Hugs to support the LGBTQ community. “It really touched a chord with a lot of people.”
The group now has chapters in every state, and Cunningham has published a memoir, How We Sleep at Night.
The Cunningham family once experienced their own heartbreak over accepting a child’s sexuality. For many years, Cunningham refused to believe that her son Parker is gay.
“It was excruciating,” says Parker, 30, describing the pain he felt when his family did not accept his attempts to tell them he is gay. “I felt so much shame about it.”
Her initial mindset sprang from her conservative religious faith, Sara says: “I’d absorbed these ideas that homosexuality was condemned by God. I was worried about my son’s eternal damnation.”
When Parker turned 21, he told his family that he is definitely gay. Mom Sara did not react well. “He came out of his closet, and I went into mine,” she says. “I went into a deep depression.”
Finally, after Parker told his mother he needed her, Sara rallied. She attended a Pride parade, where she met people whose parents had ostracized them for being gay. She felt such compassion for them that she launched her nonprofit, which offers moral support and emergency assistance to marginalized members of the LGBTQ community.
Soon, Sara began officiating at same-sex weddings, which led to the viral Facebook post — and, eventually, to being an as-needed stand-in mom. Among her first proxy children was Tabatha Castillo, whose mother did not attend Tabatha’s 2018 marriage to Marlee Castillo.
“It was wonderfully chaotic in my heart, to have Sara there,” says Tabatha, 29, of Little Rock, Arkansas. “It was bittersweet. I really wanted my own mom to be there.”
By standing in for the absent mother, Sara offered what Tabatha wanted most: “She wanted to love me out of the want of her heart,” Tabatha says. “It was an overwhelming flow of love.”
Adds Tabatha: “Sara nurtured me in a way that you wouldn’t have guessed we weren’t related.”
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“It was such a weight off our shoulders to have Sara there,” says Marlee, 26, whose entire family attended the wedding. “It was nice to have someone there from Tabatha’s side.”
Sara did all the traditional “mom” things, touching up Tabatha’s hair and makeup, and being the first person to see the bride in her dress.
“Tabatha was just lovely,” Sara says of the wedding. “They were so happy and so much in love. It warmed my heart.”
The biological moms don’t always appreciate Sara standing in for them. “One time we had a mom angry about it,” Sara says, “but we were able to have coffee and talk about it.”
Sara now has a roster of couples wanting a stand-in, including one straight couple, and a robust list of volunteer proxies. The stand-ins would rather attend weddings as guests than as proxies. “We hope the mother will come around,” Sara says. “If not, we just show up.”
Says Sara, who lovingly embraces the community she once rejected: “This has been a beautiful thing.”
To Parker, his mom is a hero. “Being her son is amazing,” he says. “What she does is beautiful. It does change lives. She is uniting people all around the country. I am very proud and thankful.”
For more on Cunningham’s inspiring journey, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE.