Celebrities – and normal folk – perform crazy, kind and artistic feats for a good cause

By Steve Helling
Updated August 25, 2015 01:45 PM
Credit: Getty

If you were paying attention earlier this month, your world might have seemed just a little bit odd.

Meteorologists delivered the weather while dressed like superheroes in drag. Crowds spelled out words that could be seen from aerial photos. People went hang gliding in costumes. Flash mobs creeped up everywhere – at malls, post offices and schools.

Even Justin Bieber got into the act, inexplicably Tweeting to William Shatner that he loves the TV show Supernatural.

The weirdness was worldwide.

Down in Florida, a group of Survivor: China contestants dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland and had a tea party with children at Give Kids the World.

So what was it all about?

As it turns out, you have Supernatural actor Misha Collins to blame.

It was all part of GISHWHES, a massive global scavenger hunt that Collins developed a few years ago. (The name stands for Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen.) Collins describes it as “part silliness, part art, part kindness and 100 percent fun.”

To the uninitiated, here’s how it works: Thousands of participants divide into teams of 15. Some of the teams have celebrity involvement; others do not. In 2015, Shatner, Property BrothersJonathan Silver Scott and American Idol alum Justin Guarini were on teams. (Full disclosure: PEOPLE senior writer Steve Helling was on Guarini’s team this year.)

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For a week in August, the teams were given more than 200 tasks to complete. Some of them are philanthropic: “Find a local school that needs instruments, art supplies, etc., and donate a needed item to it.”

Others are nearly impossible: “Send an encouraging message using either crop circle-style writing or some other form of land art. The message must be at least 2 acres across. Have your artwork photographed from space.” (Amazingly, a team actually managed to complete this task.)

There was a task that involved a Star Wars stormtrooper. We’ll let the photo speak for itself.

So what’s the point? For one thing, Collins wants to push people out of their comfort zones. “I always liked the idea of pushing the rules just a little bit,” Collins, 41, tells PEOPLE. “I like the challenge of endeavoring to do things that you’re not quite supposed to do.”

But there’s a higher purpose, as well. “Over the last five years, I’ve added a lot more charitable or kindness items. I want people to understand that doing charitable things can be really fun and exhilarating. It doesn’t always have to be onerous.”

Case in point: Teams were asked to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. Shatner’s team enlisted Property Brothers star Scott to help make it happen.

“I’ve always loved scavenger hunts, and I love pranks, so it was amazing,” Scott, 37, tells PEOPLE. “It gave me a chance to be as resourceful as possible; I called in a lot of favors. It took every free minute I had that week.”

Scott was tasked with bringing a camel onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He reread the rules and realized that the camel didn’t have to be real, so he dressed in a camel costume.

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But Collins is insistent that GISHWHES (pronounced gish-wez) is not only be about well-connected celebrities. “I want to avoid it being known as a celebrity scavenger hunt, because this should go beyond that. Everyone can do it.”

Participants were tasked with creating dresses out of construction paper and posing next to fancy cars. Others were asked to create a portrait of Robert Downey Jr. made out of salt and pepper.

“Everyone has different skills that come in handy for GISHWHES,” says Collins. “And that’s what I want to unlock. I want people to be surprised at what they can do and what they can accomplish.”

“My hope is that people realized that it doesn’t cost them anything to be kind, and artistic, and decent people,” he continues. “And it’s a way to meet people.”

Adds Guarini, 36: “I loved working with my teammates. We overcame obstacles, pooled our creativity and shared a lot of laughs. I loved meeting new and passionate people, all the while doing good for the world at large.”

A winning team hasn’t been crowned yet; judges are still going over the submissions. (“It’s not about winning,” says Collins, although he is offering a trip to Costa Rica for the winning team.)

And what’s next for the 2016 GISHWHES hunt? Collins promises bigger and better. “I never want to come up with items that will get people hurt,” says Collins. “But in my ideal, GISHWHES will become part of the collective consciousness. And more people will get involved, and have a delightful experience doing it.”