GALESBURG, Illinois — As precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused people to shelter in place, Krista Wynes offered them a way to connect by sharing their hearts.

They responded to her call for a “social distance scavenger hunt” by placing hearts on windows and doors, making her new Heart Hunters Facebook page a community that is 600,000 strong and growing.

“I have come to realize, as the Facebook group has grown, that hearts really are a symbol of love and kindness and, I think, unity because every human being has a heart inside of them, so it brings us all together,” said Wynes, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and active in the Galesburg Knights of Columbus with her husband, Dave, a deputy Grand Knight.

The idea came from a Facebook post that showed a white house with a big red heart in the window.

“It spoke to me,” Wynes told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria. “I thought this is something I can do with my kids to get them out of the house as we’re trying to establish some new schedules and get them moving since we don’t have a lot of options for going to the park and playing on the playground equipment or being with friends.”

Catholic schools in the diocese have been closed since March 13 and were not scheduled to reopen until after Easter, if not later. E-learning or online learning was to begin after spring break.

In the meantime, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order that all persons should shelter in place as of March 21, with only “essential” businesses allowed to remain open. On March 31, that order was extended to April 30.

Wynes’ sons, Lincoln, sixth grade, and Harrison, second grade, attend Costa Catholic Academy in Galesburg and are engaged in e-learning at home until the pandemic passes. A certified ophthalmic technician at Illinois Eye Center in Peoria, she accepted a voluntary layoff to stay home with them.

Wynes first posted the idea to Galesburg Rocks, a group that at one time had invited people to paint and hide rocks for children to find. A woman who saw what Wynes was proposing encouraged her to start a Facebook page.

Her “social distance scavenger hunt,” which was launched March 21, soon became so much more, however. Not only have people who are out walking and driving been “collecting” hearts, but it has touched those who are ill or quarantined, and the elderly who can’t get out, she said.

“I get these beautiful private messages from people I don’t know telling me how it’s awesome to be able to open up Facebook and scroll through and look at everyone else’s hearts and how it makes them forget for a while what’s going on,” Wynes shared.

One senior told her that even though she doesn’t usually spend much time on Facebook, she spent an entire day recently on the Heart Hunters page, because it provided a needed respite.

“I’ve been moved to tears many times from the posts I’ve received from people,” Wynes said.

It also has moved her to prayer.

“I’ve private messaged several people who have messaged me and promised to pray for them. I’ve said rosaries for people,” Wynes told The Catholic Post.

Heart Hunters is a public group on Facebook and its 15 administrators and moderators are monitoring posts to make certain people abide by a few simple rules. For example, visitors and followers are asked to be kind and courteous, and not to engage in hate speech, bullying or promotions. Politics are not permitted.

Others are doing similar things to lift people’s spirits, with children searching for hearts and teddy bears.

Seeing the creative and colorful posts of how people are sharing their hearts in these troubling times isn’t the only thing that is heartening for Wynes. She said her Catholic faith gives her hope and strength for the future.

“I guess what I hope to see come out of this (crisis) is people returning to church,” she said. “I hope they start coming back to Mass. I hope that we see the Catholic faith start to grow again. … I’m quite hopeful that that’s going to happen.”

Willems is assistant editor and special sections editor at The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.