Columbia resident Katie Stephens started a local rock-painting group, Columbia MD Rocks!!!, to inspire families to spread kindness through painted rocks and inspirational messages.
Canvases for painting aren't limited to paper products in the Stephens household in Columbia, where family's gatherings feature dozens of different colored paints, mounds of small rocks and artistic brainstorming sessions.
What started as a family hobby in May blossomed into a community-wide rock-painting Facebook group, Columbia MD Rocks, created by Katie Stephens. The group joins the international Kindness Rocks movement to spread random acts of kindness by painting inspirational messages and images on rocks and leaving them outside for others to find.
The movement began in 2015 when Megan Murphy, of Barnstable, Mass., was in a transitional period in her life. The 49-year-old former businesswoman said she searched for inspiration during frequent walks along Sandy Neck Beach.
At the time, Murphy said, she had just recently sold the chain of fashion jewelry stores, bella of Cape Cod, that she owned.
"I was contemplating what was next," Murphy said. "On those walks, I would look for inspiration, such as heart-shaped rocks or pieces of sea glass, because I lost my parents when I was in my early 20s. I had conversations with them like, 'If this is the right thing to do or you hear me, send me a heart-shaped rock.'"
It was only a hobby and she had no intention of sparking a movement, Murphy said. She started by dropping five painted rocks among the millions spread across the mile-long beach. That same day, she received a text message from a friend, who said they found one of the rocks and wanted to know if it was Murphy's doing.
Murphy said the comforting message left on the rock made her friend feel better on a bad day, so she continued the art project.
"Since then, I've probably dropped multiple thousands [of rocks]. I was doing about 200 a week during the summer months," Murphy said. "It took off because people would vacation on Cape Cod and bring them back to their hometowns. I wanted people to be empowered to start their own groups in their communities."
In the past 2 1/2 years, hundreds of thousands of painted rocks have been found in nine countries around the world, according to the Kindness Rocks Project website, including Ireland, Australia and Brazil. The website allows finders to tag their location on Google Maps and share pictures of the rocks.
Stephens, 38, and her son, Indio, 3, first started painting rocks after learning about the movement in Medina, Ohio, where they were attending a young family member's first communion ceremony. Stephens said her extended family mentioned going to "find rocks" in a small town square and found a long oval-shaped rock with "silly underwear" painted on it.
A day later, Indio found another rock at the bottom of a slide on a playground.
"This one was very simple and a much younger child had done it, but he was really excited," Stephens said. "On the back of the rocks, there's the name of the group, 'Find us on Facebook, use my hashtag and re-hide me.'"
Each hashtag is unique to every individual or group, said Stephens, who uses #indiboo, referring to her son's nickname.
The family took a picture of their finding and posted it on the Northeast Ohio Rocks Facebook group, which has garnered more than 197,000 members since its creation in July 2016.
Nancy Pierson, founder of Northeast Ohio Rocks, said her group was only one of three when it started and grew to include 20 counties in Ohio. Pierson, of Alliance, Ohio, said she created the random acts of kindness group at the request of her daughter-in-law, Mallory Powell.
Pierson said Powell lived in Oak Harbor, Wash., and joined local rock-painting group Whidbey Island Rocks after her husband and Pierson's son, Eric, were deployed to Afghanistan. Northeast Ohio Rocks has inspired about 87 groups nationwide as well as others in Chile, South Africa, British Columbia and the United Kingdom.
"Our rocks have been found in every single state not once but twice and in 50-plus foreign countries," Pierson said. "In my wildest dreams, I never thought the group or its rocks would be this size. We estimate three million Northeast Ohio rocks have been painted and hidden across Ohio, the U.S. and around the world. Our group is negative-free, conflict-free and advertising-free."
On a cool Friday evening, Katie Stephens sat at her kitchen table with Indio as he used a thin-tipped paintbrush to slap green paint on a little, smooth rock. The Stephens family joined around the table, including Katie's mother, Emilia; her brother, John; 8-year-old niece, Marley; and nephews Jude and Liam, ages 2 and 1.
Katie Stephens said she started Columbia MD Rocks in May when she returned home from Ohio and saw there were no local rock-painting groups. Today, there are several other groups in Howard County, such as HoCoMD Rocks, HoCo Rocks and EC Rocks – Ellicott City, MD.
Columbia MD Rocks has the largest number of members at 315.
On the family's first go-round, Stephens said they placed about 30 painted rocks around Columbia near park benches, a river behind their house and outside Toys "R" Us and Wegmans. Stephens and Indio have painted about 75 rocks in the past four months and found five to seven others.
"It's a volume game," Stephens said. "A lot of times you hide a rock in a really good spot and you're like, 'For sure, someone is going to post this,' and then it doesn't turn up or it turns up months later. You have to be prepared to make this beautiful thing, put it out in the world and maybe it never turns up or turns up later."
Emilia Stephens held Liam as everyone painted.
"It's fun and it brings out your creativity when you haven't done anything for a long time," she said.
John Stephens, who has painted Halloween-themed rocks, said his wife enjoys his creations, which have featured pandas and the University of Maryland's Terrapin logo.
"It gives me something to do with my kids that's not sitting and watching a movie," he said.
Kelly Walker, Stephens' neighbor, said she joined Columbia MD Rocks with her two children – Blake, 3, and Violet, 2 – as a fun art activity that also got the kids to go outside. Walker is a second-grade teacher at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, where she said she painted images of the sun on rocks for each of her students.
Walker said she has also talked with assistant principal Colleen Golden about a rock-painting project to celebrate the school's 50th anniversary in 2018 by creating a rock garden.
"My kids love it. It's become more of a fun activity for me," Walker said. "It relaxes me. "We started to explore other parts of Columbia that we haven't been to before, like all of the lakes and different shopping centers. We got to know Columbia a little better."
"Some of the groups – and going forward we might do this – have a theme for the month or the week and give people a starting-off point," Stephens said. "I think people get a little hit of excitement out of it. I know I do, knowing that you left [rocks] out there, people found them and they bothered to post about it."