Karen Houck referred to her grief as a "bag of rocks" for years before she ever painted one or lived in a Lee's Summit house landscaped with a hundred tons of them.
On Long Island in 2011, Houck's teenage daughter Alyssa died of an accidental prescription drug overdose. Six years later and living in Missouri, Houck found herself hooked on the idea of "kindness rocks."
"I spent the first year trying to take down big pharmacy, then I realized that wasn't going to work out. Then I spent a year on the couch," Houck says by phone from the Orlando airport where she's hidden a rock with a unicorn painted on it.
Though it might have looked like a fad when it began in 2015, the Kindness Rocks Project is instead gaining momentum. It was started in Massachusetts by Megan Murphy, whose idea was to paint a picture or some kind words on a rock and leave it where another person would find it and feel encouraged.
Houck became involved after a friend found a rock painted like a ladybug and sent her a picture.
"Ladybugs were always our thing," Houck says of herself and daughter Alyssa.
Houck has since dedicated herself to painting and sharing the rocks. Her involvement has become so great that she's now a Kindness Rocks "ambassador" and appeared on the Today Show in November with the founder.
As an ambassador, Houck acts as a liaison between members and the larger organization, and has access to curriculum suggestions for greater community outreach.
She says the movement continues to gain ground particularly in light of kindness initiatives in most schools as part of suicide awareness and prevention. Every state and many countries have multiple Kindness Rocks groups registered on Facebook; most cities around the Kansas City metro have one.
Like many of those involved, Houck paints as a way to heal. Others do it for the fun of the hunt, or some combination of fun and therapy.
The Raytown group is one of the metro's largest, with more than 4,300 members. Its Facebook group administrator, Jennifer Perkins is also the president of Spring Valley Elementary School’s PTA.
She says her rock-painting community has donated dozens of painted rocks to her school for a sort of therapeutic garden. They've written messages like "You Matter," "You Rock" and "Think Happy Be Happy." The school plans to use the painted-rock garden as a spot where the counselor can talk to children who are struggling with anxiety and other emotional challenges.
"(It's) just another area for the counselor to take them out and make them feel comfortable, help pull weeds, make sure the rocks aren't getting covered up," Perkins says. "Then they'll be able to see all the positive quotes on the rocks."
Molly Boyd is involved with the group in Lee's Summit, which has nearly 2,000 members. She says they write their Facebook information on the backs of their rocks so whoever finds them can go to the page.
"If they stumble upon a rock, a lot of the times they'll look into the group on Facebook and start to like it and start creating their own rocks," Boyd says.
When someone finds one of the rocks they've made, she shows her five-year-old daughter the Facebook post. That's one of the ideas that keeps people coming back.
Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler is a leader in her city's painted rock movement. She says that the 1,400-plus members post hints when they've hidden rocks, then enthusiasts treat it like a scavenger hunt. Distler says the hunting aspect has been great for the city.
"What I didn't expect, and was pleasantly surprised to find was, it was not only bringing people to our city just to find these rocks and visit our parks, but people that were residents of the city were posting comments like 'I didn’t even know this park existed,' or 'this boutique existed.'"
The mayor says there aren't many rules to painting and hiding the rocks. Of course, the first is that only kind messages are allowed and the art must be child-appropriate. Other than that: Don't place a rock where a lawn mower might hit it, or in a spot that would endanger a child. Before hiding one in or near a business, ask if it's okay.
"If you find a rock you can take it, and you either leave another rock or you take that one and hide it somewhere else, or you keep it if you want it," Distler says. "But we hope that the people who are hunting are also painting and hiding to keep the game going."
On the phone from the Orlando airport, Houck is keeping her eye on what people are doing when they see that unicorn rock while she talks to KCUR about the phenomenon of painted rocks.
"They look at them, they pick them up, they're not sure what to do. Somebody's smiling, even if you don't hear about it. When you get to hear about it," she says, "that's the bonus of the whole thing."
Editor's note: A change has been made to reflect that Alyssa Houck passed away on Long Island, not in New Jersey as previously stated.