Hallmark's "When Calls the Heart" galvanized an online community of millions, called Hearties

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Once a year, a lucky few get the chance to actually visit Hope Valley, an early 20th-century town on the Canadian frontier with a church, a school and a big heart. 

Most of the time, the only way folks get to visit is by watching the place on TV. Hope Valley is the set of the Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart,” a show that takes pride in the fact that it’s something of a throwback.

“There’s a real desire for heartwarming entertainment, stories about community and family and love,” says Erin Krakow, the series’ star. “It hearkens back to a simpler time and it’s something that I think all of us really want in our lives.”

Krakow plays a schoolteacher who 10 seasons ago came to a town that was recovering from a mine disaster. At the time it was named Coal Valley. Slowly, with twists and turns and loves gained and lost, the town and her grew up together, helping one another like a family.

Viewership grew, too, and while Krakow may be the show’s star, that’s not how she sees it.

“I am one piece of the heart of the show because we are a show about community,” Krakow says. “And I think that we wouldn’t be Hope Valley, we wouldn’t be ‘When Calls the Heart,’ without all of the members of this community.”

Members of the “When Calls the Heart” community call themselves Hearties, and they’re some 2 million strong. Like Pat Conlee and Celia Sumrall, who became friends watching the show, they organize online and meet in person.

“It really helped me,” says Sumrall. “I was kind of, just wasn’t sure what I was going to do after retiring from teaching for so many years. You know, what was my purpose going to be? What was I going to be doing?”

Sumrall says joining the Hearties gave her an opportunity to meet lots of new people. She’s emotional talking about it.

“I love the show, but just simply because I like the faith, I love the family atmosphere, I love the way the community comes together,” she says. “Our world is very divided right now and that’s hard. Hope Valley works through that and they talk to each other and they get over it.”

When the beloved show character Rosemary struggled to finally have a baby at the same time she grieved her own mother, Conlee saw some of her own story on screen.

“That is me, so that hit me really hard,” Conlee says. “It helps you see that other people have these situations in your life that affect you for life sometimes, but that you can get over them and make it through.”

The show is based on the writing of Janette Oke, who herself grew up on western plains of Canada. Her Christian romances have sold more than 30 million books. 

Oke says what surprised her most about the Hearties was “where they all come from, and still understand one another.”

“We come from different cultures and different areas of the world, and yet, we have that common human need to understanding, working together, feeling accepted,” she adds. “That accepted is a pretty big word.”

Hearties show up for each other in ways large and small. When Hurricane Maria devastated Jelsy Freytes’ community in Puerto Rico, Hearties from all over the world stepped up.

“They just came together, created a website so everybody could see what was needed, and they just started mailing me things that I needed like canned food, batteries,” Freytes shares. “I have never experienced something like this. This outpouring of love.”

Although “When Calls the Heart” may be fictional, Oke says the effect the show has had is very real. 

“There’s lots of places in our world, even in our busy cities and whatnot, where you don’t know if you’re accepted, you don’t have a place to really fit, you don’t have anyone to fill that spot in your heart,” she says. “And I think that’s why this show has touched so many hearts, because we need that. We have to be a part of the group. We were made to be, belong to one another, support one another.”

Produced by Anthony Laudato. Edited by George Pozderec.

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