Offering hugs, high fives for the recovery of Virginia Beach community

Dave Sylvester greeted city workers and other locals with high fives and hugs of support during a visit in June. [Shelly Slocum/The Independent News]
Ed. — This archived story originally ran in the July 5 print edition.


OCEANFRONT — Dave Sylvester, known as “Big Dave,” traveled from Pennsylvania to console Virginia Beach following the May 31 mass shooting at the city municipal center.

While visiting the Green Cat Juice Bar and Market at the Oceanfront in June, he greeted people with a booming voice and a high five, even a hug. It’s a longtime mission.

Big Dave travels the world following tragedies such as the one that happened here, and he gives passersby a gesture of comfort and words of encouragement.

“Every time that there is a shooting or something like this, the fabric of humanity gets torn just a little bit more, and people need to be able to trust again,” Sylvester said. “I think we need to be able to trust in people again, and that’s what hugs and high fives do.”

A personal trainer in Philadelphia, Sylvester traveled down to the Green Cat, the same place he had given high fives and hugs two years ago during a nationwide tour.

“When he came last time, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how people would react, but it just seemed like it was a positive event,” said Jacki Welch, owner of the Green Cat. “I see people leaving with a big smile on their face after they’ve gotten a big bear hug.”

Upon arriving in Virginia Beach, Sylvester talked to municipal workers, the mayor and and police officers.

“When stuff like this happens, they have to notify families, and, at the same time as you’re doing this horrible work, you don’t have time to grieve,” he said. “I like to reach out to police and stuff, because it gives them an outlet. They need that while they’re doing their job.”

People smiled and hugged Sylvester repeatedly at Green Cat. Some were affected by the shooting and found comfort in his hugs and friendly demeanor.

“It’s important that something is done to make people smile,” he said. “It’s definitely important after there is a shooting or something to do something to make the community smile.”

One young boy high fived Sylvester over and over again, a huge smile overtaking his face each time.

“People are excited that we’re coming together as a community,” said Ashlie Bell, office manager of Green Cat. “I think the response to Big Dave has been great.”

“I love it,” Welch said. “It puts a smile on their face. They come in but then they see him and he’s like a teddy bear. His mood is just infectious.”

Sylvester started doing this after his friend was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack. He now tries to do something once a month, whether local in Philadelphia or traveling to a place in need like Virginia Beach.

“Even when I’m not traveling, I’m hugging and high fiving,” he said. “That’s what people know me for.”

Over the past 18 years, Sylvester had given out over half a million hugs and high fives. He has bicycled the U.S. three times and driven the nation once. He has gone to Africa, Asia and Australia.

After his visit to Virginia Beach, Sylvester can add more than 50 high fives given – and more than 50 lives brightened by his visit.

“The important thing about my story is how it can apply to your life,” he said. “I’m not doing anything that requires a specific degree. I just hope to make the world smile.”

© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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