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The hearts are a sign of support for local businesses.

They can be seen across the city — on businesses open and those which must temporarily close due to Governor Roy Cooper’s latest executive order on COVID-19.

They are the work of Riley Mills, a Roanoke Rapids High School senior and artist.

At this point, he has 120 hearts to do and the requests keep rising, he said.

(To inquire about a heart, message Mills via Facebook)

His artwork has the backing of Main Street Roanoke Rapids, Main Street Development Director Christina Caudle said Monday.

“We’re taking his idea a step further and encouraging (businesses to) pay it forward,” she said.

Main Street has sponsored 15 businesses in the historic district for Mills to paint the hearts. “We’re encouraging if you get one of our 15 spots to consider paying it forward and sponsor your neighboring businesses in the district. We hope the 15 we’re sponsoring will jumpstart the process.”

Said Caudle: “We want to support our locally owned businesses. They’re the backbone of the community and one of the core focuses of our organization.”

The Roanoke Rapids historic district is home to the largest number of locally-owned businesses in the county, she said. “We’re doing what we can to help each other and support these businesses. Our hope is if we choose to love our neighbors and pay it forward there will be a huge collection of these red hearts in the historic district.”

Mills at work Monday

Mills is an accomplished artist and is considering a path to graphic design at East Carolina University and will still continue to focus on his artwork.

Out of school now until at least May 15, according to the governor’s latest executive order, it gives him a chance to hone his craft and earn some money with each heart set at $20.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “I’m having a great old time. Social media has blasted it up.”

Shannon Golden messaged Mills about a community project, asking him if he would like to take part in it. “She had in mind some hearts. She created a mockup to see what it might look like.”

From there, the Love Local, Shop Local project was born.

“So many are dealing with this situation in solitude,” Golden said. “I wanted to put out a smoke signal of hope for our community. So when you see a heart you know there is a band of small business owners and local shoppers, albeit behind closed doors, wanting to say thank you to those working to keep us safe, those willing to keep us healthy and those working to keep the shelves stocked.”

Golden said Mills was the logical choice as he has already been commissioned and completed projects in Jackson and Seaboard. He has done an art club project for Hannah’s Closet, a rockfish at Mayflower as well as numerous window paintings and other commissioned work. “Anytime there’s a young adult who is willing to go out and create his own business, I’m a fan from the start,” she said.

For Mills, the hearts signify a business is local.

He sees a time when the COVID-19 threat will be a memory and looks forward to it. “It’s going to be great. Businesses are going to be flooded. Even if we don’t go back to school, seeing everything go back to normal will be nice.”

Completed works

Les Atkins has a completed heart at his and his wife’s business on Tenth Street. “I wanted to show support for local business,” he said. “Small businesses have to stick together. We are the heart of the community. We’re the ones people turn to for fundraisers. When there’s a need we support them. Now we’re asking the community to support us. Anything they do to support us would be great.”

For Caudle, it’s about the effort Mills has taken in the project. “I think the initiative Riley has taken as a senior in high school to do this is pretty remarkable. He’s extremely talented and it’s a great way to support him, too. I know we appreciate what he’s doing to try to unite us.”