A hug. God knows how good it feels and how much we could all use one right about now. A hug is an expression of affection and tenderness. It alleviates stress and is a balm for mind and body alike.

I think we all have our favourite "huggers." Mine is Emma. "Emma the Magnificent" to her friends.

Emma is my niece, my brother's daughter. The only child in our clan. She's 7 years old, cute as a button, fun, funny and incredibly bright. The kind of little girl everyone dreams of. Especially a woman like me, who doesn't have kids of her own.

Mois Des Calins Sainte Justine Emma Julie Belanger
Julie's niece, "Emma the Magnificent".

Being the only child in our family, she is pretty much the full-time focus of all our attention, as you can well imagine. We ooh and ahh at every new milestone. We greet each of the stages of her life with zeal. In other words, everywhere she goes, she has her own personal cheerleading squad right behind her.

We were there to clap when she rode a two-wheeler for the first time. We've teared up at each of her dance recitals. As she grows and changes, and experiences her first victories, she's also coming up against her first defeats. And we have a front-row seat to it all to praise her on her accomplishments and to create wonderful new memories together.

Emma lives in Quebec City, so I obviously don't get to see her every week. And that was before lockdown restrictions went into effect. But when I do, and wrap my arms around her, I'm always shocked. She gets a little bigger each time. She's lost another one of her baby teeth. She's sounding more and more like the tween she is gradually becoming. It's going so fast. Time flies, even when all you want to do is slow it down.

Clearly, I love being an aunt, and I shower my affection on Emma. Even if she's not "mine," through her I know what it must feel like to be a parent. I know that your child will always be the cutest, the smartest, the most talented. It's nice to bask in the light of someone who shines so brightly.And what if one day, that child got sick? Only it's not just a case of the sniffles they caught at daycare. I mean really sick.

Imagine that you have to take them to the hospital, or worse, that they have to stay there. That their very life is in danger. That the doctors are telling you a bunch of things that don't make much sense but fill you with dread.

Imagine the earthquake, the tidal wave that comes crashing down all around you.

It's the kind of thought that is so painful I simply can't let my mind go there. Not since Emma's been in my life. The very idea makes me seize up. It's too tragic, too horrible, too everything, to even contemplate.

But for some people, it's not a hypothetical worst-case scenario. It's all too real.

That's why I do what I do for the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation, specifically through the Mois des Câlins campaign, and have for 13 years now, since I started working at Rythme FM. Because I've always had a soft spot for kids and families. Because I've met lots of them over time at different events. Frail little bodies hooked up to all sorts of machines. Smooth little heads where hair used to grow. Youngsters who have gone through unimaginable pain and suffering, but who never lose their smile. They look you straight in the eye, and deep into your soul. Parents who are beyond exhausted but who keep fighting with everything they have. It's overwhelming, I know.

All you want to do is give them a great big hug and tell them it's going to be OK. And you want to believe it's true. Because there's nothing worse than feeling utterly powerless.

One of the easiest ways to do something to help is to buy a Clarins "Rose Câlins" Lip Perfector during the campaign. Easy peasy, right? It may seem like a small gesture, but it speaks volumes about how much you care about children and their families. It's something concrete you can do to make a real difference.

Fees Calines 2021
The 2021 Hug Squad Marie-Christine Proulx, Mitsou Gélinas, Marie-Eve Janvier, Julie Bélanger and Sébastien Benoit with Delphine, CHU Sainte-Justine's patient. © Consulat

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Mois des Câlins. And Emma is now 7 years old. Like I said, time flies.

While I wait to be able to see my darling niece once again, I'll make the best of things with this hug, and send one out to all those brave little warriors who could use one, too.

It's to say thank you for having Emma in my life and to express my gratitude that she is the picture of health.

Because, as we all know, health is the greatest gift life has to give.

Julie Bélanger, proud Hug Squad member for 13 years

N.B. The remarks expressed in this article reflect the opinion solely of the author and should not be considered as representative of the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation.

Our partners: the best "huggers" going for the past 15 years

They have embraced this campaign from day one. They wear their heart on their sleeves and care deeply about the kids of Sainte-Justine. Working alongside the Foundation, Jean Coutu, Clarins and Rythme have made the Mois des Câlins an event that people across the province look forward to year after year.

The ongoing success of the campaign is due in large part to their stalwart support. They have helped us raise an impressive $4.5 million over the past 15 years so the Foundation can fulfill its mission to back various initiatives at Sainte-Justine, including the wonderful work done at the Marie Enfant Rehabilitation Centre (CRME). The result: better health outcomes for thousands of children and better lives for thousands of families in Quebec.

On behalf of all the children in our lives we love to hug, I thank you for all the support you have given to the Mois des Câlins campaign over the years.