A grassroots movement that started in Billings to create millions of paper hearts to send to Newtown, Conn., in the wake of a deadly Dec. 14 mass shooting at an elementary school there is gaining momentum across the country.
"It's gone above and beyond what we hoped, really, from the first day," said Gala Thompson, who organized Paper Hearts Across America with her family. "It was thinking the first 500 hearts we got, that was great. But now, it's grown on its own."
As of Monday morning, Thompson estimated that, with the help of Broadwater Elementary, where her daughters attend school, they'd collected more than 10,000 handmade hearts, with a goal of collecting nearly 19 million, which would stretch from Billings to Newtown.
The Thompson family initially started Paper Hearts Across America as a way to discuss the deadly tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and find a way to make a positive impact and show Newtown that there's still good in the world.
Within a week, people from all over the country, and around the world, were sending boxes of the hearts to Broadwater, which volunteered as a collection point and is hanging the hearts in hallways until they're sent to Connecticut. Its Facebook page went from 12 "likes" to nearly 500 in just five days.
Media in other states, including The Baltimore Sun in Maryland and Minnesota's National Public Radio, picked up the story. Thompson said people from just about every state, as well as places as far away as China and Australia, have made and sent in hearts.
"The hearts come in boxes and boxes and we all just get so excited," Thompson said. "We've been able to cover the whole inside of one of the school buildings and we're moving to the other one now."
Locally, schools, businesses, organizations and residents are pitching in. A neighbor of the Thompsons', Joy Manning, set up a booth at Rimrock Mall for several days where people could make hearts. Schools and businesses have been sending them in as well.
Manning also has a table set up in front of her house, where hearts can be made or dropped off.
The Thompson family plans to collect the hearts as long as needed and wants to expand the project to foster discussions about awareness and communities banding together to deal with problems.
Thompson said she wants people to know that it's not just a project for school kids. She wants everybody — universities, families, businesses, hospitals — to get involved.
"It's important that everyone knows it's for everyone to make a heart," she said. "Hopefully, Newtown will be flattered by this gesture and about how many people are compassionate and kind. There's more kindness in the world than there is hate, and that's what this is all about to begin with."