Spreading Kindness, One Rock at a Time
Painted rocks are popping up all over cooperative-served territories in the most unexpected places.
Nearing a bend in the park’s well-worn trail, Carol F. had no idea that she would encounter something that would alter the course of her life.
Resting on a nearby stump was a small blue object illuminated by the sun’s early morning rays. “It was almost as though it was highlighted for me to see at that very moment,” Carol says, describing the scene in the quiet park on that warm, humid July morning.
Upon closer inspection, Carol realized it was a rock, one with a black semicolon carefully painted on its bumpy surface against a backdrop of bright-blue paint.
She was vaguely familiar with Project Semicolon, a global non-profit movement dedicated to preventing suicide. This initiative uses the popular punctuation mark in its awareness campaigns, explaining that it represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose not to.
It wasn’t a perfect rock by any means. Parts of the anonymous artist’s original strokes had started to fade in the harsh summer sun. The craggy rock was perfectly imperfect — just like its unexpected new owner.
Her discovery couldn’t have been better timed. “It was as though the painter knew the thoughts going through my head,” she says.
As Carol, a member of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, held her newfound treasure, a sense of relief overwhelmed her. “The rock encouraged me to keep going — and reminded me that a little kindness goes a long way. It feels silly to admit it, but that rock changed everything for me,” she says.
Carol would later discover more about the rock she’d slipped in her pocket that morning. It was part of a national phenomenon quickly gaining popularity from the Eastern Shore to far Southwestern Virginia, as well as across the country. Before that morning, she’d known nothing about it. “I guess I was living under a rock,” she jokes.
Though the goals may vary slightly with each area of Virginia, the overall message is simple: kindness rocks. Hundreds of communities served by electric cooperatives have started online groups committed to painting and hiding rocks, with the sole purpose of spreading a little joy through these unexpected artistic treasures. The idea originates from The Kindness Rocks ProjectSM, an effort started in Cape Cod to encourage random acts of kindness.
Just as each rock is unique in size, shape and texture — so, too, are the themes painted on them. The designs can be striking, ranging from superheroes and food-inspired rocks to intricately painted sunsets and animals. Some are painted with words and expressions of love, joy and encouragement, while others aim to draw awareness to a specific cause, cancer or condition. But for every ornate, creative or clever work of art hidden, there is always one lovingly smeared in splashes of color or gobs of glitter by little hands.
These painted rocks are placed around the community in parks, playgrounds, gas stations, tourist spots, libraries, shopping centers and other popular family-friendly spots. Once found, the finder is free to keep or re-hide the rock for someone else to enjoy. Each rock has a message on the side opposite the painting, asking the person who finds it to post the colorful and creative find on the local rock group’s Facebook or Instagram page. The rock’s painter can then see who found the rock.
For Mary Walters of Chesterfield, it’s about much more than rocks. Her 8-year-old daughter, Jenna, suffers from ataxia (lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements) in both legs and has been in physical therapy for many years. “When she was younger, I would take her on long walks to strengthen her legs,” she explains. “But as she got older, she started to refuse because of the pain involved.” As a result of the rock movement, Walters says that Jenna is interested in walking again.
It was a rocky road to recovery for Hannah Castro’s husband, Lou. While the fire lieutenant was recovering at a local hospital after an unexpected stroke, painted rocks played an important role in his recovery and in lifting the family’s spirits. “My husband had been cleared to be walked around the outside of the hospital in his wheelchair. I knew how much our two children, Savannah and Owen, loved finding painted rocks, so I mentioned it on my local rock group’s Facebook page,” she explains. That same week, painted rocks began appearing around the hospital’s perimeter. The family found nearly 60 — many personalized for the Castros — and continued spreading kindness by re-hiding a number of those rocks for patients in the cancer wing. “I was blown away by the response! This rock movement really brings out the good in people,” Castro says.
Jennifer Hopkins, BARC Electric Cooperative member and administrator of the Rockbridge Rocks Facebook page, says she was contacted one day by the mother of an autistic boy. “She told me that her son would throw fits whenever she tried to do activities with him, and that he would sit in his room and go days without communicating,” she explains. But when the boy found a painted rock in his local community, it changed everything. “Now, he makes her sit down at the table with him to paint rocks. He talks to her about how he feels. They laugh together. They eat dinner together every night,” Hopkins says. “That’s powerful.”
Sometimes, rock discoveries are just about making someone smile. Joy Lane, a member of Powell Valley Electric Cooperative and resident of Lee County, says that’s what appeals to her the most. “I love being part of the Jonesville Rocks Facebook group. It tickles me to death knowing that one of my painted rocks could potentially make someone smile — and you never know who it’s going to be,” she says. “That’s the fun part!”
Painted rocks even travel out of the county, state or country. Andrea Belton, a Southside Electric Cooperative member who has a deft hand when it comes to painting rural scenes on her rocks, says, “I love it when my rocks travel … or ‘rock and roll,’ as we like to say.”
Jessica Laws watched one of her rocks travel to Japan. “It was very exciting,” says the founder of the RVARocks group, which covers 11 counties in Central Virginia, including four served by Southside Electric Cooperative and one served by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. With over 26,000 active members, the RVARocks group was one of the first groups started in Virginia and has inspired the inception of several smaller groups in nearby cooperative-served areas.
Painting and hiding rocks is something anyone can do. Age and artistic talent are not important. It’s the thought, effort and care put into each rock that make the largest impact. Northern Neck Electric Cooperative member Tara Brent says, “My children get so excited when they see a painted rock. It doesn’t matter what it looks like!”
Like the Project Semicolon rock that Carol found, many rocks are painted with causes near and dear to the painter’s heart. “I paint cerebral-palsy-awareness rocks in honor of my 3-year-old son, Liam, who suffers from the disorder,” says enthusiastic rocker Nicole Augustine.
Some rocks are painted in honor of fallen heroes. Community Electric Cooperative member Vykki Harrell explains that a Suffolk-area couple, Bill and Cindy Price, organized the painting of 343 9-11 rocks for the New York firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11. “These rocks were distributed around the Suffolk area, and some were even sent to New York to be placed at various memorials to the fallen,” she explains.
For Rappahannock Electric Cooperative member Michelle Southern, painting and finding rocks with her husband is fun, but it’s the hiding that brings her true joy. “We really love hearing the little ones behind us squealing with excitement when they find them,” she says.
When A&N Electric Cooperative member Sarah Quiles first started the Eastern Shore Rocks! Facebook page, it was a way for her children to get off their electronics and engage in an exciting activity outdoors, a modern-day treasure hunt of sorts. Quiles was pleasantly surprised when it turned into a community-involved kindness movement. She explains, “We have local businesses offering free items and discounts for their businesses if you find one of their rocks. It’s been bringing our community and the surrounding areas together, which really rocks!”
Patty Atkins-Smith, a member of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, has a home in West Augusta and loves watching the movement grow in popularity. “Rocking is so much fun. It’s a very challenging ‘sport,’” she jokes.
But, like sports, there are rules and expectations that go along with the game. Though these guidelines vary slightly from group to group, the most common rules include not leaving rocks in state or national parks (it’s against the law), not leaving rocks in grassy areas maintained by groundskeepers (they may damage mowers), and making sure to properly seal your decorated rock to avoid rain washing the paint off into the environment.
There are also expectations within each group that help make the experience as enjoyable as possible for everyone. These expectations include always making sure there are rocks left behind for others, only keeping your favorites and re-hiding the others, and re-hiding most rocks in the same park you found them.
While the rock movement appeals to families with children, it isn’t just for the young. It’s also for the young at heart. Community Electric Cooperative member Jessie Estrella, who enjoys painting beautiful dot mandala patterns on her rocks, says her 68-year-old father has gotten into painting, hiding and finding rocks. “People of all ages are getting into it. Just about everyone I know in Virginia is infatuated with this movement. You don’t have to have kids to enjoy this activity,” she points out.
Another added bonus to the rock craze is that you might rediscover parts of your community you haven’t appreciated in a while. Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative member Ashley Seldomridge enjoys painting rocks with her husband, Scott, and two young children. The Alleghany County resident says, “Not only has this experience provided a wonderful chance for us as a family to work together to create, explore and have fun, but it has also opened our eyes to the fine details of the beauty of our surroundings.”
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative member April McDuffie-Hodges of Nathalie agrees. “Through rocking, we are finding new places to explore in the community,” she says. Her sons — Bryson and Aidan — each enjoy something different about the rock-painting movement. Bryson enjoys painting the rocks, while Aidan says he likes exploring for new hiding places for the rocks he paints.
“We were able to get our kids on both the Appalachian Trail and Creeper Trail hiking in search of rocks,” says Shelby Gibson, a Southside Electric Cooperative member and Powhatan resident. “It’s great to have them experience more than the play equipment at any given park. Now, we experience nature — butterflies, lizards and dragonflies, for example — every time we are out looking for painted rocks.”
Gretchen Farmer, Prince George Electric Cooperative member, is a fifth-grade teacher and mother of two. She and her family have painted and hidden nearly a hundred rocks around Prince George County. She says, “I just like knowing that whoever finds our hidden treasures will feel good. It’s a positive thing all around.”
To locate your local rock group and connect with “rock stars” near you, search Facebook or Instagram. Most groups’ names are simply the name of the community, plus the word “rocks.” For a listing of most of the rock groups in Virginia (a work in progress), check out the USA Painted Rocks Etc. Facebook page.
The most poignant advice for those interested in becoming involved in this growing movement comes from NNK Rocks administrator and Northern Neck Electric Cooperative member Laura Sisson: “Let the rocks write their own story, and step back and just enjoy being part of something bigger than you.”
Be sure and check out the following Virginia rock groups on Facebook!
The Burg Rocks!
Chesapeake Rocks, VA
Isle of Wight County is “Rockin”
Bedford VA Rocks
Eastern Shore Rocks!
Bath County VA Rocks
Augusta County VA Rocks
Shenandoah Valley Rocks
Tazewell Claiborne County Rocks
Halifax County VA Rocks
Southampton VA Rocks
King George Rocks
Rockin’ in Windsor!
Winchester VA Area Rocks
Giles County Rocks
Suffolk Rocks (VA)
Warsaw VA Rocks
NOVA Rocks Kindness
Bracey Virginia Rocks
Orange County Va Rocks
Frederick County, VA Rocks Kindness
LVA Rocks! VA
Louisa VA Rocks
Eastern Shore Rock Painting
Haymarket VA Rocks!
Prince William Rocks
Rainbows rock King William couple with messages of hope and a promise of peace
“Bless the soul that left this rock,” Buck Reed, of King William County, wrote simply and sincerely.
It was the caption to a photo of his wife of 26 years, Patricia, beaming while holding in her hands a rock with a rainbow painted on it. On the RVARocks Facebook page, thousands of “likes” began to appear as Reed revealed the couple’s recent struggles.
“July 11 was the day,” Buck, a member of Rappahanock Electric Cooperative, recalls. That day Patricia, a lover of flower gardening, was diagnosed with leukemia. She was receiving treatment at Richmond’s Massey Cancer Center when she discovered the painted rock featured in the Aug. 18 Facebook post. While the rock brightened up an otherwise dreary day for the couple and their 16-year-old son, the rock’s impact was much more profound than Buck revealed in his brief post.
“Rainbows have been a consistent sign from God for her during her battle with cancer,” he explains. It all started with a painted rock the couple spotted at MCV Medical Center just three days after her diagnosis. “I thought someone had bought it from the gift shop and then lost it,” he says. “We’d never heard of the rock movement at that point.” Like the rock Patricia recently found, the first rock also had a rainbow painted on it.
Then, during Patricia’s second week of cancer treatment, rainbows continued to bring hope to the Reeds. “There was a day when she wasn’t doing really well. I remember entering her treatment room that day and seeing a double rainbow glowing brightly through her window while she lay in bed. As bad as she was feeling, she got up by herself to see it. For us, it was a sign from God,” he explains.
Patricia entered a second round of treatment in September, but her husband is encouraged by the fact that her latest bloodwork reveals no sign of cancer in her bone marrow. “The second and third rounds of treatment are to kill any cancerous cells left. The doctor told us they are for the cure of her disease, not treatment. They are talking cure,” he explains, emotionally.
An employee of Sherwin-Williams, Patricia was recently awarded a plaque for 30 years of service. “They told her that she had only missed 12 sick days in her 30 years,” Buck says.
For the Reeds, the painted rocks that unexpectedly found their way into their hands have provided hope and inspiration during a very difficult time.
“I, personally, know that God is good and that prayers get answered,” Buck says. “The rainbow rocks just reminded us of that.”