My O.C.: Stepping Stones to Kindness

Painted rocks are small tokens offering life-changing energy.
Illustration by Kara Pyle

A tiny pink heart in the parking lot at the El Modena Post Office in Orange caught my eye. It was on a painted rock about the size of a quarter whose placement on the ground seemed accidental, as if someone had dropped it. The rock itself was the color of asphalt. Only someone paying attention would notice.

My first painted rock was spotted on a tree stump, along the McKenzie River in Oregon. It was the summer of 2019, and my husband and I were on our way home from a three-month road trip to Alaska. It had a marbled acrylic finish and fit nicely in my hand. A treasure. Concerned about taking something that was not mine, I left it. But not before taking pictures and noting the hashtag on the back. 

That hashtag led me to a local rock-painting group where I posted my photo. Further research unearthed The Kindness Rocks Project, started in 2015 by Megan Murphy. Coping with the loss of her parents, Megan started writing messages on rocks and leaving them on her local beach. As if by divine guidance, a friend of Megan’s found one. The message, written in Megan’s familiar writing, was one she really needed to hear. She reached out, wanting Megan to understand the impact and power contained in this simple act of kindness and the movement it inspired. Now there are rock-painting groups all over the U.S. establishing “kindness gardens” in their communities with instructions: “Take a rock if you need one. Share one with a friend who needs inspiration. Or leave one for another.” Members leave rocks in random places, too. All are usually marked with the group’s hashtag, like the rock I found in Oregon. This helps spread the word. (Find Orange County’s group on Facebook and Instagram: #OCROCKSUSA.) 

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I dabble in crafts enough to know I could paint a halfway-decent kindness rock, and the riverbank was full of rocks waiting to be painted. I filled a bucket. Those rocks sat in my garage for months collecting dust, until Christmas, when I got the idea to make stocking stuffers. I painted a few others after that, but the COVID shutdown started the kindness rock project for me.

I left painted rocks along my daily walking route. Everyone whose birthday I had on my calendar received one. When 2020 graduation signs popped up on the lawns of my neighbors, I painted rocks commemorating the occasion and left them anonymously on doorsteps. Obsessed with this mission to spread joy, I asked myself how I could reach more people.

A painted rock, when found or handed to another or simply looked upon, never fails to delight; they are grounding, like standing in the grass barefoot.

Everyone walked in 2020. It was our only means of getting out and seeing others. So I created an art gallery in my front yard, frequently adding designs to maintain interest, often focusing on an occasion, and sometimes honoring a current event such as the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the need to vote in an upcoming election. Soon my rocks showed up in photos on my neighbors’ social media accounts. For a while I encouraged engagement, adding faces with movable rock parts and a tic-tac-toe board with rock pieces. The art gallery created much-needed moments of connection during a time of isolation, and it strengthened ties with my community. Even today, when my husband and I are out front, neighbors walking by will stop and share how much they enjoy the rocks and seeing what’s new. Sometimes they have a painted rock story to share or questions about the work.

My efforts grew as the world adjusted to another year with COVID. I painted batches of rocks and sent them with friends, who through their connections brought them to hospital emergency rooms. The Santa Ana Red Cross Blood Donation Center, where I give blood, received a box of 15. My husband and I left a rock every day on a three-week road trip to South Dakota, recording each location on Instagram. Rock painting is a great outdoor activity, so I invited friends and family to come paint with me.

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Earlier this year, a friend introduced me to Timmaree Rocks Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates the legacy of Timmaree, a 9-year-old girl who spread hope and positivity through the rocks she painted during her lengthy stays at CHOC. The foundation’s mission is to lift the spirits of other children fighting cancer, mostly by bringing Timmaree Rocks Foundation Craft Day to the hospital and supplying thousands of rock-painting kits to sick children. Timmaree’s story and the way in which her family turned this loss into a light for others touched my heart. A foundation based on rock painting expanded my awareness of what is possible. I donated rocks for their fundraising efforts, and soon I hope to volunteer my time. 

People who paint rocks believe they can make a difference in another person’s life. Creativity is a tool they use to offer hope, encouragement, kindness, and compassion. Rocks are gifts from Mother Nature. The painter then adds the gift of their care and presence. Many of my heart rocks have “You Are Loved” written on the back, a surprise when you turn them over. No signature. No association with a group. I want the person who finds one of them to feel as if the message is from the universe or whatever deity they worship. A painted rock, when found or handed to another or simply looked upon, never fails to delight; they are grounding, like standing in the grass barefoot.

Robin Wall Kimmerer sums up this energy perfectly in one of her “Braiding Sweetgrass” essays: “A gift creates an ongoing relationship.” Making something with my hands that is intended for another, that reaches out to another, has become a way for me to use my voice, a way to express and share goodness, a way to cope when life feels hard. It reminds me that we are all connected. The relationship Kimmerer refers to exists even if we never meet, or between you and a divine entity, or simply with yourself. 

Remember that tiny heart rock I found in the post office parking lot? It’s with me now, acting as a muse of sorts. This essay resonates with the energy of the person who painted it and all the people whose hands it passed through, including mine. Its work is done and it’s time to set it free. If you find it, keep it—either physically or in your heart—as long as needed. 


Kindness Rock Gardens by OCRocksUSA

Orange Home Grown Education Farm
356 N. Lemon St., Orange

Girl Scouts of Orange County
9500 Toledo Way, Irvine

Trabuco Elementary School
31052 Trabuco Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon

To find kindness gardens, search for the rock-painting group in your community. Each city typically has their own, such as Tustin Rocks and San Clemente Rocks.