Folks who headed to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis to enjoy the fall colors last weekend saw some unexpected hues: hot pink, bold blue and lime green.

Jaunty strips of neon-bright paper filled the lower branches of a tree near the Rose Garden. Scribbled on the strips were anonymous wishes.

People stopped their running, walking and biking to read the heartfelt words of strangers -- and add their own.

Some wishes were universal: world peace, a cure for cancer, "someone to love." Others were intensely personal: "Sobriety for my Mom." And some were childlike and whimsical: "I wish I had a rainbow pony."

Donna Hamilton, who lives a block away, made four trips to see the tree and take pictures during the week it was hung with wishes. "I love the thoughts. They made me cry," she said. "I like the whole scene of it and seeing people interact with it."

Who created the wishing tree? And why?

The mastermind is Minneapolis mom Deb Arora. The tree kicked off a yearlong initiative she calls "The Hokey Pokey Project" ( -- weekly public happenings designed to "make people smile."

"We wanted to introduce our kids [Jackson, 4, and Charlotte, almost 2] to a unique form of community service," she said. "We wanted to make it fun and build it into the fabric of life."

The family added their own wishes to the tree, then left strips, yarn ties and a pen so that others could do the same. When Arora returned at the end of the first day, all the strips she'd left had been written on and hung on the tree, so she brought more. Then still more. Someone took the original pen, but more pens mysteriously appeared so visitors could continue writing their wishes.

The Aroras, who live near the tree, kept tabs on its progress. "We can sit on our patio at sunset and watch," said Deb's husband, Arun Arora.

By the time the Aroras undressed the tree on Monday evening (rain was in the forecast for Tuesday), there were more than 400 strips, Deb estimated, some with wishes written on both sides, and even a wish penned on an oak leaf.

She was surprised at the response. "I didn't expect it to be so picturesque," she said. "People come up and thank us." And, like Hamilton, Deb said she was moved to tears by some of the sentiments. "They're very meaningful. One person wished that her nephew would never be bullied again." She hasn't decided what to do with the wish strips, but she won't throw them away, she said.

Deb's friend Katerina Sturgis found the wishes so touching that she decided to create a similar tree near her home in Roseville. "I want to carry on the message of hope and putting your dreams out there -- and hopefully they'll come true," she said.

Inspiring copycats is just what the Aroras want to happen. "My husband dreams of having it be a global phenomenon," Deb said. She got the idea for the wishing tree from an artist featured in a parenting magazine, and one of her ground rules for Hokey Pokey projects is that they can be easily and inexpensively replicated by other families.

'Mommy blogger'

Creating things is a way of life for Deb, a California native who worked in advertising for 14 years before having children and reinventing herself as a blogger and freelance copy editor. Her blog, "Missives from Suburbia," filled with "Mommy observations" grew out of e-mails she sent to friends. She built the blog to the point that she had advertisers and sponsors, she said, but it became "overwhelming" and less creatively fulfilling.

So she dreamed up the Hokey Pokey Project. It was not her first choice for a name, she said, but she couldn't get the online rights to others she wanted. "The marketing person in me knew I had to get the domain name. Then my son was doing the dance, and I remembered the bumper sticker: 'What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?'"

Before creating the wishing tree, Deb watched weather forecasts, waiting for the best time to launch the project. She didn't seek permission from the city, which owns and maintains the land, but left a note saying she'd take the wishes down after a week. "I decided I'd ask for forgiveness later," she said.

But Minneapolis Parks Department spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said she found the idea "charming" and that the department will be willing to cooperate with Arora on future Hokey Pokey projects.

This week Deb plans to distribute small pads of Post-It notes with smile-inducing messages, while the following week's project will be something "tooth-achingly sweet," she said. After that, who knows? "I have five or six in my mind."

Luckily, she has an enthusiastic fan and helpmate in her husband. "I'm proud of my wife," he said. "It's not every day you get to do something nice for others."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784 Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report.