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Like many homeowners, Jenny Mekemson buys bags of palm-sized landscaping rocks to put in her garden. Most people arrange them around the plants as a low-maintenance weed barrier.

Mekemson's garden omits the plants. It's just rocks.

But what rocks! Mekemson and her children, 8-year-old Graham and 9-year-old Clara, paint them raspberry pink, bubble-gum pink, pumpkin orange, banana yellow or minty green. The rocks, called Kindness Rocks, are piled by color in a raised bed about 24 feet long and 3 feet wide that stretches along the edge of the sidewalk beside her Minneapolis house.

More than half of the colorful rocks are also decorated with little pictures or messages.

"All along you were blooming." "You are magic." "You deserve the best." "Enjoy the moment." "You are amazing." "Dream big." "Plant kindness, gather love." "Today I will shine." "You are enough."

The Mekemsons write many of the messages themselves. Others are inscribed by passersby — including some in the careful, crooked hand of small children — using markers that Jenny puts out. A sign encourages bystanders to "take one for inspiration, share one for motivation, or leave one to help our garden grow." Another sign encourages people to visit the garden's Instagram page.

Jenny and Kyle Mekemson and their children, Graham and Clara, hold a selection of their favorite rocks from their garden.
Jenny and Kyle Mekemson and their children, Graham and Clara, hold a selection of their favorite rocks from their garden.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

The rock garden is just one of many fanciful decorations in the Mekemsons' yard, which includes towers of vintage teapots, a basketball court, a mini-golf course, a rainbow-painted bench and a kid-sized fort they call the "stick castle" made of branches and decorated with Christmas lights.

But at least until they finish stocking their Little Free Library ― which husband Kyle adorned with a brightly painted wooden cutout of an owl, and will hold riddles and prizes in addition to books — the rock garden is arguably the main attraction.

The garden has helped the Mekemsons, who moved here nine years ago from Oak Park, Ill., connect with neighbors. They like walking around the neighborhood and seeing their painted rocks in other yards.

"There's so much bad news in the world today, having something that's mostly cheerful and kind is just really helpful — or maybe needed," Mekemson said.

Perhaps because rocks are generally quiet and inscrutable, they get assigned qualities. Solid as a rock. Hard as a rock. Dumb as a rock. But lately, rocks have come to be widely considered kind.

The Mekemsons' display is just one of hundreds of gardens and individually placed rocks around the country inspired, directly or indirectly, by the Kindness Rocks Project. The project was launched and went viral nearly 10 years ago after a Massachusetts woman placed a painted rock on a Cape Cod beach.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling of Faribault, Minn., has spotted kindness rocks around the state.

"I fell in love with them because I like the positive messages that you find," Helbling said. She leaves the rocks in place but takes photos for her blog, Minnesota Prairie Roots, "because right now there's just so much negativity out there."

Graham Mekemson walks behind his family’s just-completed Little Free Library, still awaiting books and other attractions.
Graham Mekemson walks behind his family’s just-completed Little Free Library, still awaiting books and other attractions.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Rock therapy

COVID spurred a surge in kindness rocks, said Missy Merschman of Nowthen, co-manager of the Anoka Kindness Rock Garden, behind Anoka City Hall. "They were everywhere, because families were making them, neighborhoods were making them."

Merschman and her friend Stacey Burnham of Anoka operate the garden in honor of Burnham's daughter, Nicole, who died by suicide six years ago, at age 21.

"To hear your friend say that they don't want their child to be forgotten is unbelievably sad," Merschman said. In 2019 she gathered a group to paint rocks and place them outdoors, and the garden was born, initially in a local park that was later adopted by the city. Although the garden is in memory of Nicole, Merschman emphasized that it's for everyone.

When she visits, Merschman said, "there's always someone that stops there and starts talking, saying, 'I come here; this is a special place.' It means something different to people in so many different ways."

As the Minnesota Kindness Alliance, Merschman and Burnham hold rock-painting open houses in a nearby space that was once part of the now closed Anoka State Hospital.

"We worry about mental health, worry about people who are alone," she said. "If we can come together and help each other get through this stuff, we can all get through it together."

The Anoka garden inspired Racheal Glancy and Amanda Swanner to create a kindness rock garden in their town of Stacy, Minn. During the annual Stacy Daze, they invite people to paint rocks.

"Anyone of any age, any ability, can do it," Glancy said. "It's kind of cool, seeing teenagers having an outlet that's not — I don't want to say getting in trouble, just that they're doing something that's spreading good or kindness."

Pink stones in the Mekemsons' kindness rock garden.
Pink stones in the Mekemsons' kindness rock garden.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Stephanie Pfeiffer of Stillwater paints elaborate designs on rocks and distributes them for passersby to come across.

"I like to paint and I do lots of mixed media art and just thought it was a cool way to leave a message for somebody and still be anonymous," Pfeiffer said. "My theory is that the rock will find the right person at the right time."

She notes her Facebook page, Kindness Rocks MN, on the back of the rocks and invites finders to post there. Of the 400 to 500 rocks she estimates she has placed since she started in 2017, she has heard from only a small number of finders.

One man who did post said he found her rock on a bike trail near Walker, Minn., on the birthday of a woman to whom he had donated a kidney — "another birthday she would not have had" without the transplant, he wrote.

"He said he knew for sure he was the one who was supposed to find the rock," she said.

Like others, Pfeiffer feels that the world is going through a particularly hard time and needs more kindness rocks than ever.

"The anger and crime and everything that's going on just shows we are in mental health crisis," she said. "I feel much of this is due to the pandemic and the isolation and the fear and all the things we collectively hope for."

Mekemson said the rocks radiate kindness in both directions — they help teach her children the value of kindness, and hopefully cheer up others.

"Sometimes people having a down week, they'll find a specific rock that really spoke to them," she said. "One woman was having a hard time. … She brought it home and put it in her kitchen window. Something like that makes us think, 'Yeah, that's why we're doing this.' "