Rock painters find role with inspiring messages

An effort to make Columbus a nicer place began three years ago with seven founding members.

Today, the movement has swelled to 7,400 followers.

“We just try to spread kindness,” said Julia Federle, who founded Columbus IN Rocks with six other local women who have been friends since 2001.

“The world is a different place,” Federle said, and one in need of encouraging messages.

The founding members took an idea that had sprung up in other cities and started painting small rocks with uplifting messages and images, placing them outdoors for people to find around Columbus.

Besides Federle, a former teaching assistant, the other six founding members are Margaret Tunny, a group home counselor; Susan Boxler, a college professor; Carrie Green, a chemist; Trisha Heathcote, a math teacher; Billie Park, a kindergarten teacher and Realtor; and Debra Gayman, a licensed clinical social worker.

All of the women are in their 40s or 50s. Park lives just outside of Columbus in Edinburgh, while the other founding members reside in Columbus. Although these friends have much in common, they live in a world where others struggle to get along.

“It’s not just an election that has divided us. It’s everything. A tiny rock can make people forget their troubles for a minute,” Federle said.

The group’s Facebook page won’t be a forum to remind them of those difficulties.

“We really try to post support for people during this time,” Tunny said, which helps keep contributors enthusiastic about painting. “We try to spread a lot of positivity.”

The 7,400 members of the Facebook page consist primarily of people who have painted and distributed rocks, and others who have found joy in discovering uplifting messages just when they needed them.

A 3-year-old boy who recently broke his arm came upon a rock with googly eyes on his way into Columbus Regional Hospital.

“He wasn’t allowed to have it for X-rays, but he wanted it right after and has not let go of it since,” wrote mom Tara Weissenberger, who posted pictures on the group’s Facebook page of her son clutching his rock while being assessed in the Columbus hospital.

It was the only thing the toddler had to play with before he was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, where his arm surgery was done.

Photos of the boy generated 55 comments – encouraging ones, as you would expect.

At the suggestion of one of its members, the rock-painting group is also embracing caregivers at Columbus Regional Hospital and Our Hospice of South Central Indiana, both located on the 17th Street health campus.

Several thousand rocks have been placed at employee entrances with heart-felt messages such as

“You are a hero” and “Brave and strong,” delivered to health workers and support staff on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with the hospital, Columbus IN Rocks developed a strong bond with the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library in Columbus, where members left painted rocks when launching the effort in July 2017.

This summer, they created a kindness garden with about 200 painted rocks in the library’s courtyard.

“We’d been wanting to find a place to do a rock garden,” said Federle, who was invited by Mary Clare Speckner, the library’s community services coordinator, to launch it there.

The organizers have also held three rock-painting parties at the library, which gives artists a chance to try it out for free before investing in rocks, paint and pens to go all in.

The core seven members get their rocks from Estes Materials in Hope, which sells Rainbow Flats rocks harvested from the Colorado River. A small bucket costs about the same as a fast-food combo meal, but without the calories.

Besides the cost of supplies, painters must also be able to invest time.

The process starts by spray-painting each rock with a base coat, then letting it dry before adding a hand-written message and/or decoration using paint pens. The final touch is spraying on a clear sealant to protect the rock from moisture – just in case it isn’t discovered immediately.

“Within 2 hours, we can get a whole bunch of rocks done,” Federle said.

Besides the library and hospital, you can also find painted rocks outside the Columbus Area Visitors Center, along the People Trail, at city bus stops and other places that will be a complete surprise.

The core seven members have not kept track of the number of rocks they have painted. But after doing some quick math based on a few assumptions, Tunny threw out an estimate.

“We’ve easily done 5,000. It could be closer to 10,000,” she said.

Add to that the thousands of rocks painted by others who joined them on Columbus IN Rocks, and it’s a mountain of meaningful messages that have been spread across the city.

Shelby Roe, a Columbus North grad from the class of 2020, found inspiration in a rock she found at her alma mater when accompanying her brother to pick up his class schedule just before the start of school for the fall semester.

“Be the one who points out what is going well and encourage others. Positive energy is contagious,” said the message painted by Yvette Kuhlman of Columbus, whose photos and painted rocks can be found on Pinterest.

“There’s so many wonderful people taking time to paint the rocks,” Federle said. “We’re getting new people all the time.”

When starting Columbus IN Rocks, the founding members never considered setting a measurable goal that, when hit, would mark the end of their initiative.

“I can’t imagine stopping,” Federle said.