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David Sylvester

A Giver of Hugs and High-Fives to a Needy World

By Jason Harris

One thing you learn about the energetic Dave Sylvester as you talk to him is that your job as an interviewer is a piece of cake. Give the affable Sylvester a topic and let him roll. The 52-year-old personal trainer is based out of Philadelphia, PA but seems to spend as much time on the road these days as he does in his home.

That’s the thing about a mission. No matter what it costs, no matter the stakes, if you believe in it, you don’t quit. Such is the case with Sylvester, who wrote a book about his journeys, Traveling at the Speed of Life. He has gone around the globe offering hugs and high fives to anyone and everyone who might want one. He is trying to make the world a better place through human connections, a worthy cause to be certain.

How did this all start?

My story goes back 16 years, after the World Trade Center came down and my friend was killed. I wanted to do something. So I rode my bicycle across the United States from Estoria, Oregon to Philadelphia.

A lot of people were inspired by my story so I wanted to do more. So then I next bicycled Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. That was an amazing experience going through Egypt, Sudan Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, India, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. And more and more people started contacting me saying how they were affected by my trip telling me what they were going to do because of what I did. So I felt a part of some cool core of humanity and I wanted to stay on that.

How did you get the word out about what you were doing?

Afterwards I got the opportunity to write my story for ESPN about bicycling around the world, volunteering some places, hugging people, high-fiving people and just sharing some smiles.

Has there been any tangible responses?

A woman sent me a bracelet explaining that her mother would reread my article every time she went to chemotherapy. And every time, her mother would smile. She wanted to thank me for making her mother smile during that painful time and inform me that her mother had since passed away. She sent me her mom’s bracelet. “I think my mom would want you to have this. Please keep going.” It made me realize that I was doing something significant.

I wanted to explore that connection a little bit more so the next trip I did was going across the United States again on a bicycle, stopping each week and volunteering a day at different charities.

I later bicycled Australia from Sydney to Melbourne, not just volunteering and biking, but I challenged myself to hug and high-five a thousand people in a month. Just me on my bicycle, hugging and high-fiving people.

Are you making a difference?

There was a woman I met in Australia who was inspired by my story and she decided to drive across the US. The first day, she ended up in a traffic jam about two blocks from the San Bernardino shooting. I was really kind of embarrassed by the whole thing, even though I had nothing to do with it. So last year, I was going to bicycle from San Bernardino to Philadelphia, going through areas affected by violence. But I got sick and couldn’t bike. I didn’t want to break my promise so I decided I was going to drive across the United States – still hugging and high-fiving people.

That sounds amazing!

And two days after that trip, The Pulse nightclub shooting happened. People at my job told me I needed to get down there and go hug people. I didn’t have any money – I was totally tapped out. And members at the gym where I work were like, “I’ll take care of your airfare. I’ll take care of your hotel. Just get down there and do what you do.” I stayed down in Orlando for a week, just hugging and high-fiving people. By year’s end last year, I had hugged and high-fived people in 31 states without even really trying. This last summer, I drove the continental 48 states in 77 days and I hugged over 14,000 people. It was a wonderful experience and I met a ton of different people.

What’s next?

Right after the Vegas shooting, my phone was blowing up and people were texting me that I need to get down to Vegas.

Dave Sylvester arrived in Las Vegas on Black Friday. Many people were hugged and high-fived.

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