FLORENCE, Ky. -- If you see one of the thousands of brightly colored rocks strategically placed around town, it's not just some natural phenomenon.
NKY Hidden Rocks encourages its members to paint rocks with characters, pictures or messages of encouragement and then hide them for others to find. A tiny sticker on the back of each one directs people to their Facebook page where they can report their findings or give clues to where they’ve re-hidden the treasures.
The local chapter is approaching 15,000 members and is linked to similar rock-painting groups throughout the country and the world.
NKY Hidden Rock founder Jo Craven said she got the idea to start the group locally after seeing a news story about the positive impact a group had in Northeast Ohio. She said following the inauguration, social media became so negative she was looking for a way to change direction. She said she stayed up late one night in February creating a Facebook page and painting three rocks -- an airplane, the Florence water tower and a butterfly.
“I posted it on the Boone County and city of Walton Facebook page and said, 'Hey, does anybody want to do this?' and explained what the group was and posted pictures of where I hid them,” she said. “And the butterfly rock was gone in an hour.”
She said what started as a trickle soon turned into a tidal wave of residents from all regions of the Tri-state joining the group. She said she believes the activity is so appealing because it not only provides tech-free time for families, painting and hunting rocks is just incredibly fun.
“It’s not just kids -- it’s definitely adults too,” Craven said. “Back when we started in the spring, we had a mom one day that posted, 'Is it wrong that my kids are in school and I’m hunting rocks?' So it’s really become an adult hobby too.”
Because of the positive message conveyed by the group, Craven said the natural progression was to pair with local charitable organizations to give back to the community.
While the group hosted painting and scavenger events at Verona Vineyards and Jane’s Saddlebag, it’ll hold its first major fundraiser Oct. 1 at Memorial Park in Independence. Event coordinator Karen Vanover said the 500 bracelets allotted for the scavenger-style rock hunt sold out in two weeks for a fee of three painted rocks per person to make up the 1,500 organizers will hide.
"We partnered with the Children’s Home in Northern Kentucky and United Ministries of Erlanger,” Vanover said. “And 100 percent of everything raised on hunt day is going to go to them, including a split the pot and a basket raffle.”
Craven said the group gives back to the community in terms of thanks for service. In August, she said they asked members to paint a rock of gratitude and encouragement for teachers and staff then place them at local schools.
“As an educator for 31 years, this one was close to my heart,” Craven said. “We just wanted teachers and staff to know as they were coming back to school, we see you and we love you and thank you.”
For September, the groups will be showing appreciation to officers throughout Northern Kentucky with their Back the Blue event. Members will be painting rocks at 13 different locations to present to law enforcement during National Thank a Police Officer Day on Sept. 16.
Vanover explained that members will be both presenting officers with hand-painted rocks as well as leaving them at police stations. She said the idea came to her when a police officer and his family attended one of their rock-painting sessions.
“Here they were with these three little girls and I couldn’t sleep that night because I kept thinking about how they put their lives on the line for us every day,” she said. “So the Back the Blue paint party came to life that night.”
While people love to paint and hunt, Craven said the magic truly occurs when someone finds the perfect rock of encouragement precisely when they need it the most. She said almost every day someone shares a story of how they found just what they needed to give them hope or brighten their day.
Craven said she has a friend who found out she was losing her job and on the same day looked down and found a rock that said "Have a Dream.”
“She called me and said I think I was supposed to find this because I’m reinventing myself and I have a dream too. And I said no, it was supposed to find you,” she said.
At a recent painting party at Home Depot in Florence, Penny Sanders and her great granddaughter, Aria, showed off their artistic skills. Sanders said after finding out about the group a couple of months ago, it led to a great summertime activity for the two. She said while she and Aria hunt during the day, her daughter and her friends prefer midnight searches after they get off work.
Sanders said she cautioned them about looking suspicious to local law enforcement in the middle of the night looking under bushes.
“They’ve run into a couple of officers and they’re super nice,” Sanders said. “They smile and they say we know, we heard about the rock movement.”
Sanders said what she loves most is the joy it brings to everyone involved.
“You just look around, it’s senior citizens and kids and everybody in between,” she said. “And every one of them has a smile on their face.”