RALEIGH, N.C. — Every Thursday afternoon, come rain or shine, college students start lining up. Homemade baked goods are set out on tables and hugs are ready.
Meet the group known as the Free Moms.
"Here you'll find free mamas, papas, grandmas, and dogs,” said Nancy Nelson, who founded the group several years ago at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "I just say, ‘Welcome back home. Do you feel a little home?’ And every kid goes, 'Yeah,' and I say, 'Good. I hope it's more every week!'"
All of her kids are grown, but Nelson felt a need to help students here feel less alone.
"We do feel like their mamas," she said.
What started with one mom now numbers more than 80 moms and dads, including Kate Theriot and her husband, Tom.
"Nancy started sharing what she was doing over here and to be honest, I was like, 'Not my wheelhouse. Not that, no. That's not what I do,'” Kate Theriot recalled, “but Tom always says I make best friends in the grocery store in line."
With that, they both began volunteering.
"I went to school here. I graduated in 1982,” Tom Theriot said, “and I remember how stressful it was to be here and it seems like stress has been built up so much more. "
So, along with 80 other parents, they all lend an ear, share a kind word or offer a hug. It quickly gained a fan following among the students.
"I just felt like it was a really awesome opportunity to get a piece of home and connect with people," said student Alaina Kelly.
Anna Thomasson accompanied Kelly out to the “Free Moms” gathering.
"I thought, 'Hey, that's so cool,' and you get a great homemade snack,” Thomasson said. “So, I love it! I think it's really great."
Student Sydnie Parks makes sure she stops by each week to say hello to Kate Theriot.
"I'm always like, 'Let me get to the Free Moms because it's not really about the deserts. I will take free food. I am a college student. But what the moms do is just really nice and just gives extra support that the students really need," Parks said.
A 2021 Healthy Minds study collected data from more than 370 college campuses around the country and found that 60% of students met the criteria of facing at least one mental health issue.
In addition, 12% of college students across the country reported contemplating suicide. At NC State, four students died by suicide last semester, driving home the mission for these free moms and dads.
"There's been a lot of suicides on campus, and there's a real need for people to be brought out of the shells and just be in a positive place," said Tom Theriot.
Kate Theriot says she sees how the students react to their presence.
"They're so moved because they just don't expect anyone to be thinking about them and to not only think about them but to do something about it,” she said. “And that's what we want to do; we want to do something that lets the students know they're not alone."
It's an isolation some students say can be easy to feel when you're away from home.
"I'm actually a transfer student here. I transferred from App [Appalachian State University], which is about three hours away from here,” said student Aniston Boswell, “and this would have helped me a lot up there because I didn't have my parents up there and just knowing that this is here helps a lot of students here."
Nancy Nelson said she would like to see Free Moms start popping up on college campuses nationwide.
"When anyone gets out of their comfort zone and gives unconditional love, it changes them again,” she said. “It changes the person. It changes the atmosphere and that's what this world needs.'"
It’s also what these students are getting.