By Morgan Bryce
From the Fringe Boutique windowsill to a bench at the Opelika Police Department, brightly painted rocks bearing encouraging and uplifting messages such as “You are special” and “Your life matters” are being found across Opelika, all part of a movement called O-Town Rocks, a campaign designed to spread joy one rock at a time.
Luanne Helms, the founder of the O-Town Rocks campaign, has a son named Jake who has non-verbal autism and epilepsy. In recent months, he has experienced numerous seizures and an increased nervousness in public social interactions, leaving Luanne to take care of him at home. She said rock painting presented itself to her as a hobby, and since October, it has turned into a major passion.
“By nature, I’m a very social and serving person … and due to having to stay and take care of Jake, I started painting rocks as a pastime,” Luanne said.
Her daughter Katy soon joined in, and they came up with the idea of placing some of their work in random spots in downtown, never imagining what kind of community response that they would receive.
“Our original idea was just to go set a few downtown and that’ll be just kind of it. But, the second or third time we put some out, we received an inbox message to our Facebook page, from a lady that said her rock had come at a perfect time, and that she had been on an emotional rollercoaster dealing with a diagnosis for her mom … so that’s when we realized that it actually could mean something else to somebody, and make somebody’s day,” Luanne said.
Luanne has since received dozens of Facebook messages from people who have found O-Town rocks, and she said the rock’s messages are making a profound impact on those who receive them, including a nine-year-old Opelika girl named Kenna, who found her rock at the Tiger Town Chick-fil-A.
“I had checked her out of school on election day to go vote with me … after that, we decided to go get a treat for lunch at Chick-fil-a,” Kenna’s mother Jennifer said. “… I just happened to look down and see a rock. She saw what it said … and she was so excited and picked it up.”
Kenna’s red-and-blue rock bore the message “You have meaning,” which Jennifer said was especially relevant following her daughter’s recent diagnosis with dyslexia.
“She’s having a struggle with school and figuring out how to do things differently. So seeing the message saying “you have meaning,” Kenna told me, ‘I can do it. This helps me to know that I have a special meaning here in this world, and I can do it, even with the challenges I’m facing,’” Jennifer said.
Kenna’s story and others who have found or received an O-Town rock have helped word of this campaign spread, and Luanne said now that with more than 600 rocks dispersed in the community, she is pleased to see how well the project has been received.
“In a small community like ours, we’re kind of set apart from others. It’s something I thought that would take off and that people would look forward to and if they saw one, they’d go to somebody, ‘hey there’s one of those O-Town rocks,’” Luanne said.
For those who find a rock on their visit to downtown or Tiger Town, Luanne encourages them to either keep the rock, or pass it along to someone else who needs it. And for those who want to remember their moment with an O-Town rock on social media, to caption it with the hashtag ‘otownrocks’.
Luanne said plans are in the works with the city to develop an O-Town Rocks project garden in or near downtown, where people can come by and drop off or pick up their own rocks, which she hopes help even more people join the project.
“At that point, that might get other people involved … maybe a teacher will go, ‘hey, I’m going to get my kids to do some rocks. They don’t have to look like mine … just because mine are painted a certain way, a child could paint a rock and put love or whatever on it and it would be just as important to somebody as well,” Luanne said.
Luanne said she plans to continue painting rocks, but hopes that the community will eventually take over and expand the project.
“I work pretty hard at it, but I enjoy it. At some point, I might say I’ve had enough, but if we are able to get the community garden going, hopefully the community will pick up on it then, and we as a whole can keep this movement going,” Luanne said.