Rock ‘n’ soul Hand-painted stones are the priceless treasure in simple but emotionally affecting hide-and-seek pastime

To mark the second anniversary of Winnipeg Rocks, a popular Facebook group that plays hide-and-seek with hand-painted rocks and stones, founder Lorna Kroeker invited members to leave a message on their home page letting others know what Winnipeg Rocks means to them.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/06/2019 (1434 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

To mark the second anniversary of Winnipeg Rocks, a popular Facebook group that plays hide-and-seek with hand-painted rocks and stones, founder Lorna Kroeker invited members to leave a message on their home page letting others know what Winnipeg Rocks means to them.

Within a few hours hundreds of people had done just that, each post more heartwarming than the last.

“This group has brought so much joy into my kids’ and my life,” read a message from a mother named Mary. “We love painting rocks together as a family (and) love going out to explore new places — and old favourites — to hide our creations.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Grayson Kroeker, 10, probes inside a potential rock hideout.

“I made friends with a homeless man… brought him coffee whenever we crossed paths,” wrote Leanne. “At Christmas time he gave me a Winnipeg Rocks rock with the word ‘Imagine’ on it. He’d found it in the summer and kept it with him to give to me as a gift.”

Using the hashtags #secondanniversary #winnipegrocks, a woman named Ilona penned a message that read, in part, “While enduring months of recovering from cancer this winter, painting rocks was creative and easy to do. It was also very instrumental in my recovery, being satisfying and inspiring to see how finding a rock put a smile on someone’s face for many different reasons.”

Kroeker says the website is averaging close to 100 posts a day.

“Monitoring and maintaining the website is a lot of work… but one of the things that keeps us, as administrators, going is reading all these incredible stories of people who’ve found rocks at just the right time in their life, and seeing how happy they look when they post pictures of themselves with their newfound treasures,” says Kroeker, seated in a St. Vital coffee shop where a server has just gushed, “Oh my, those are so pretty,” after spying a shoe box filled with brightly painted rocks Kroeker has with her.

“They’ll be out for a walk, spot a (painted) rock in the branches of a tree or under a park bench and the next thing they know they’re part of this absolutely great community of people.”

In 2015, Megan Murphy, a life coach from Massachusetts, wrote “You’ve got this” in permanent marker on a smooth, heart-shaped rock. The next time she was out for a stroll on a beach near her Cape Cod home, she dropped it in the sand, hoping it would brighten the day of somebody stumbling upon it. Seemingly overnight, her anonymous act of kindness went viral. There are now hundreds of community-based “kindness rocks” groups in Canada and the United States, whose participants adorn palm-sized rocks with inspirational sayings such as “life is short, eat the cupcake,” or colourful images of everything from wildlife to sports team crests to, well, rock stars. (All you need is love… and a paintbrush: a member of a club south of the border specializes in rocks boasting images of the Fab Four.)

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A small rock treasure sits beside a mushroom.

In the spring of 2017, one of Kroeker’s fellow parishioners at St. Vital Evangelical Mennonite Church sent her an article about the phenomenon, wondering if they could incorporate something similar at their place of worship, perhaps as a fun activity for kids involved in their youth groups.

While that plan failed to materialize, Kroeker’s curiosity was piqued, nonetheless. That explains why a few weeks later, she and her three children spent a weekend at the cottage painting red maple leaves, a nod to the fast-approaching Canada 150 celebrations, onto rocks they’d collected along the shore of Lake Winnipeg. When they got back to the city, they hid their creations in public parks and playgrounds — hiding rocks on private property is a no-no, she’d read — throughout their south St. Vital neighbourhood.

Kroeker then posted a message on the River Park and Lovin’ It Facebook page, letting area residents know what to do if they found one. She linked that set of instructions to a newly minted Facebook site dubbed Winnipeg Rocks. The rest, as they say, is history.

“The last time I checked we had over 21,000 members in our Facebook group, including 500 from the States, people who joined after finding a rock while passing through town,” Kroeker says. “Rocks found in Winnipeg have been re-hidden all over the world: England, Germany, Uganda… Somebody even posted a picture of a Winnipeg Rocks rock that made its way all the way to the Great Wall of China, if you can believe it.”

Although discoverers are encouraged to re-hide rocks for others to enjoy, there is no set rule in that regard. If you chance upon one bearing a likeness of a butterfly or ladybug you think would look great in your backyard garden, it’s yours to keep.

A few years ago, Winnipegger Barbara Samson was walking through a park on Vancouver Island, grieving the recent loss of her mother. By chance, she spotted a small grouping of rocks, each of which carried words of encouragement.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Brynn (from left), Lorna, Rylan and Grayson Kroeker look for hiding spots at St. Vital Park.

“There was one that said ‘you’re loved,’ another said that said ‘you’re beautiful.’ I didn’t take any, I left them where they were, but in that moment it made me feel somebody out there cared about what I was going through,” Samson says over the phone. “It’s not like I had any artistic training, but they inspired me enough that when I got home I started painting rocks for myself.”

In July 2017, a friend of Samson’s familiar with her hobby gave her a call, telling her to turn on her TV. There was a story on the evening news Samson would probably be interested in, she said, about a group of Winnipeggers who’d formed a rock painting club.

Although Samson had previously been shy about showing off her handiwork, deeming it amateurish at best, as soon as she heard four- and five-year-olds were sharing their painted rocks with the world, her immediate reaction was, “sign me up.”

“I’m retired now, but when I joined Winnipeg Rocks I was working a job I didn’t particularly enjoy. So the moment I got home, kind of as therapy, I totally immersed myself into painting rocks, which I’d turn around and hide in places like Kildonan Park on weekends,” she says, noting while some members use rocks they turn up in everyday life as blank canvasses, she prefers decorative, smooth-backed ones, the sort available for $4 a bag at most garden centres. “Through the group, I began meeting people who were hiding rocks in the same parks I was, which led to new friendships. No question about it, Winnipeg Rocks has become a big part of my life.”

Two years in, Kroeker admits to being “completely amazed” how Winnipeg Rocks continues to pick up steam, welcoming new members every week.

Besides the Winnipeg contingent, there are also rock painting clubs in Steinbach, Churchill, Portage la Prairie and Winkler.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Barbara Samson shows off a collection of her painted rocks.

Originally she thought it might be a fad, the same way Pokemon Go was “super huge” for a while but seems to have died down a fair bit, she says, noting her husband, who initially guffawed at the project, is now a diehard convert whose area of expertise is rocks adorned with images of electric guitars.

“I think one of the big reasons for our success is people like Barbara discovering how therapeutic painting rocks and hunting for rocks can be,” she says. “There’s a woman who posted a message a couple months ago, saying how excited she and her daughter were when they found their first rock, and how her husband kidded them about it. Tragically, he passed away a short while later and at his funeral, they passed out rocks they’d painted for people to remember him by. The fun aspect is usually what hooks people initially, but the emotional connections they build through the group are what keeps it going and growing.”

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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