Three-year-old Eli Kaufman’s day was made when he spotted a rock, with his mother Kacey’s help, outside their limestone home on February 21. The palm-sized, triangular-shaped rock caught his eye because it had the cartoon face of a yellow Angry Bird.
“My son was thrilled! He carried it for hours and asked me to take pictures of both sides,” said Kacey Kaufman. “Now he wants to look for rocks everywhere.”
This rock is just one of hundreds hidden around Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for kids and adults alike to find and pick up during their everyday routines. Homemade, painted rocks are hidden and rediscovered in public places by strangers as part of Bay Ridge Rocks! a project led by stay-at-home moms Ranu Abu-Sbaih and Amie Jo Pappas.
The rocks have uplifting messages like “You are loved” and “You can be anything,” and images that have included candy apple red hearts, golden suns with smiles and colorful rainbows.
This initiative is one branch of The Kindness Rocks Project that has captivated multiple U.S. and international cities since its inception in Massachusetts in August 2015. A woman, who chose to remain anonymous at the time, started collecting beach rocks after her parents died. The rocks were a source of inspiration for her, and she thought maybe they could be for others as well.
For Abu-Sbaih though, this project is meant to brighten someone’s day, promote neighborhood involvement and boost local morale.
“The end goal is the same as the working goal – that we get people to create art work, and get people to know that they can make beautiful things and that those beautiful things can brighten somebody’s day,” she said.
Similarly, Pappas said the project is not about any one person; rather, it is about residents being creative and using that creativity to make Bay Ridge an even better place.
Abu-Sbaih said she learned about the rock painting over the Christmas break from Pappas, where the trend had become popular in her hometown of Lakeland, Florida. When scrolling through her Facebook feed a few days later, Abu-Sbaih discovered that her hometown of Oswego, N.Y. was also participating in the rock hunt.
“I remember taking a screenshot of it and thinking what a cool thing to do,” she said. “I found it really inspiring.”
Abu-Sbaih looked into what other cities were doing online and developed a game plan. She painted her very first rock like a strawberry and placed it in a produce basket at Pineapple Farm, the fruit and vegetable store located on 74th Street and 5th Avenue. Her second rock was painted like a ladybug, and she put it on the ledge of a mural that featured a ladybug.
The other handful of rocks that she painted had phrases like “Feel blessed,” “Let your light shine” and “Be kind.” Those were scattered onto neighborhood windowsills, by benches and in the branches of trees.
“The first time I went out to hide rocks I thought to myself ‘people are going to think I’m so strange, putting rocks all over the place,’” she said. “And I realized that nobody thought I was strange because no one was looking at one another. Everybody’s sort of avoiding eye contact or looking at their phones and no one was even noticing that I was putting them down.”
After hiding the handful of rocks in early January, Abu-Sbaih went back to the spots a few days later and found that nobody had picked them up or had even moved them. So she decided to create a Bay Ridge Rocks! Facebook page and inviting friends to come paint, and look for or hide their own rocks. At just two months old, the page now has more than 430 members.
“I’m so excited that there is so much interest in our group,” Pappas said. “I really hope it gets to the point that any Bay Ridgeite will see a rock and know exactly what to do with it!”
Though the group continues to gain popularity and recognition, Abu-Sbaih said she hopes the hunt will expand beyond the “small radius” that is Bay Ridge. She and Pappas aspire to be at the Lakeland Rocks level – that group has almost 29,000 members.
While the neighborhood may be small, residents like Kaufman have welcomed this treasure hunting trend with open minds and hands.
“It gives him that simple joy of searching for hidden treasure – but, for me, I appreciate that uncomplicated and genuine connection with my neighbors and the feeling of excitement that I know was experienced when the little fingers placed the rock in its hiding spot,” she said in regards to what this initiative means to her and her son. “We need a little more love and a lot less divide these days.”
The duo recently set up painting tables in the Bay Ridge branch of the New York Public Library and at the Parent Teacher Association’s “Around the World in 102 Days!” private art gala at P.S. 102. They plan to set up more painting sessions for members and newcomers in the local libraries and at one of the neighborhood parks when the weather gets warmer.
“The nice thing about the whole project is that it brings a real sense of community and that there are families and friends who paint together,” Abu-Sbaih said. “It’s nice to see that people have gone out into the community with their heads up and their eyes open – to have people aware of what’s going on around them, and how people can affect one another.”