LEOTA — When “Adopt a Senior” pages began showing up on social media a month ago as a way to support high school graduates missing out on a traditional graduation ceremony, Leota native Emily (DeGroot) Dilly thought of her younger brother and how the global pandemic has completely disrupted his routine.

Conner DeGroot is an outgoing, people-loving 14-year-old with Down Syndrome and autism. He doesn’t understand why he can’t be in school, resume his role as the unofficial greeter at his church, or why he has to spend all day at home with his mom as his teacher.

In essence, Conner’s schedule and many of the things he’s enjoyed have been obliterated by COVID-19. It’s a result of the pandemic Dilly also sees in her part-time jobs working with people with disabilities.

So, while scrolling through her Facebook feed a month ago, Dilly decided to create a Facebook page for people to “adopt” a child with unique abilities. The goal was to have people select a child to send notes and care packages to, just to brighten their day while they are stuck at home.

“I thought, this has to really stink for those seniors, but other people are really struggling during this time, too,” she said.

Dilly’s creation — “Adopt” a friend with unique abilities - Tri State Area — has generated more than 500 followers on Facebook and resulted in more than 80 children, and even some adults, being “adopted” by strangers in the southwest corner of Minnesota, northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota since May 1.

Dilly was shocked by the interest in the concept, awed by the compassion of others and inspired by the generosity as she now sees posts of smiling children holding up packages containing everything from toys and games to books and colored pencils.

“I was kind of stressed at the beginning, wondering if people thought this was stupid or a dumb idea, and that’s been proven wrong,” said Dilly, a 2017 graduate of Southwest Christian High School graduate now studying elementary and special education at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Parents are using the page as an opportunity to post a photo of their child, explain his or her health issues or diagnosis and perhaps share about the child’s struggles during COVID-19. In the comment threads, people can offer to “adopt” the child or leave inspiring messages.

Dilly said the page has brought so much joy to families that she’s had requests from parents to keep it going after life returns to a new semblance of normalcy.