- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - People of all ages are rocking the Ohio Valley with colorful messages of kindness and hope “hidden in plain sight.”

Since spring, painted rocks in all shapes and sizes have cropped up along walking trails, in parks, near landmarks and outside local businesses. Some bear small masterpieces, the painters clearly talented artists; others display a single word, such as hope, peace, dream or love. Still others are the work of young children, emblazoned with a smiley face, a rainbow, a lopsided heart.

On the back of most of the rocks is the name of a Facebook group, and the finder is encouraged to post a picture there and then re-hide the rock for someone else to find. Some rocks also have individualized hashtags, which, if included in the post, allows the painter to follow their rocks’ travels. Some rocks are anonymous.

“The idea is to paint as a random act of kindness. The rocks are meant to bring happiness,” said Linda Porter of Cadiz, Ohio who started the East Central Ohio Rocks group on Facebook in March. Her group is the largest in the region, with more than 8,500 members, and their rocks have traveled as far as Iceland, France, England and Ireland.

“I love painting and drawing, and I love spreading joy and happiness to people,” said Christina Frazier of Wintersville, Ohio who founded Ohio Valley Painted Rocks in June. She recently hid dozens of rocks in Norfolk, Virginia while visiting her son in the Navy. One of those rocks wound up in Paris.

Carrie Kuttie of Belmont, Ohio began painting rocks as a spring break activity with her sister, Kim Barto of New Athens, and their four children - three boys and a girl ages 8 and 10. They have painted more than 150 rocks and found more than 100.

It’s a fun, creative outlet for them - and it gets them away from their TV, computers and iPads, Kuttie said.

“We told the kids to imagine what the rock looks like and go with that. Whatever they see in the rock is what they paint it.” Some rocks become cars, guitars, vegetables, animals, insects or food.

The process also has an educational component. One of their rocks traveled to Wisconsin with their aunt, who hid it at work. Instead of re-hiding it, the co-worker who found it decided to take the rock with her on an Alaskan cruise and take pictures of it at the various places using the kids’ hashtag, #4cuzinsrock.

“It’s been kind of a geography lesson for them as well as a creative lesson that is not on a screen,” Kuttie said.

Lee Miller, a member of East Central Ohio Rocks, said it has been a great family activity for her children, who are 11 and 2. She said it’s difficult to find one activity they all enjoy. “It got us out of the house, and everywhere we went was a new adventure!” she said.

It’s not only educational, but it can be a healthy endeavor. Tracey Campbell of St. Clairsville, Ohio has painted more than 700 rocks with her children and their friends - ranging in age from 2-19. She has lost 12 pounds from all the walking they do looking for and hiding rocks, mostly along the St. Clairsville Bike Trail. Their hashtag is #mykidsrock.

“We get a lot from it. They get social skills from meeting new people because we don’t only just hide them, we hand them out to random people,” Campbell said. It also has shown them how interconnected people can be. “The funny part is some people take them to the beach on vacation and hide them. Then someone from our area finds it and brings it back.”

It is always the finder’s prerogative to keep the rock or re-hide it. Some are just too pretty to part with. Kids in particular may want to keep the rock they found, especially if there is a cute animal, favorite cartoon character or silly monster drawn on it.

“That’s their new friend,” Frazier said. She enjoys watching people from afar as they discover her rocks. She’s seen adults jump up and down with joy.

“I just love the satisfaction of knowing they made somebody happy.”

The phenomenon’s origin is credited to Megan Murphy of Cape Cod, Massachusetts , who two years ago took a Sharpie marker with her on her daily walk at the beach and scrawled a few rocks with random kind words, then dropped them back in the sand. She said later that day, a friend texted her a picture of one of the rocks, guessing Murphy was behind it. Murphy denied it, but the friend told her it made her day. At that moment, the Kindness Rock Project was born. She has more than 52,000 likes on her Facebook page and has been interviewed on the “Today” show and by The Washington Post and other media outlets.

In a video on the Kindness Rocks website, Murphy describes how her trips to the beach were therapeutic even before she started the rock movement; it was where she felt she gleaned guidance from her deceased parents. Others find the project itself is a salve to smooth out the roughness of modern life.

“It’s my therapy,” said Amanda Yinger, a member of Wheeling WV Rocks group on Facebook. “This activity is so beautiful for our valley that needs a little color and lots of family time. It’s teaching our kids such great life lessons without them even knowing. And some lessons us adults could be reminded of as well.”

Rock painting is not just a family activity, but it also is being undertaken as a group project or social event at schools, youth groups and even nursing homes. This summer, the residents of Good Shepherd Nursing Home painted rocks and then teamed with Holy Family Child Care Center to place some of them on the playground for the kids to find, in addition to hiding them in the community. Charitable organizations and even businesses have used them to spread awareness.

On Facebook, in addition to the groups cited above, there are “rock groups” based in Moundsville and New Martinsville, along with Barnesville and St. Clairsville in Ohio.

Riley Kendle, 10, of Bellaire, Ohio doesn’t follow her rocks on social media but just enjoys painting them and leaving them for people to find. She and her siblings have found and hidden rocks all over the Ohio Valley.

“I just think it spreads a little sunshine and love,” said mom Kendra Kendle. “It’s a delight to find something unexpected.”

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