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MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) — Two lifelong city residents have been spreading kindness one rock at a time with a simple craft project that transforms river rocks into tiny works of art.

What began as a spark of inspiration for Nicole Bell, 34, a stay-at-home mother of two girls and a boy, after seeing photographs of kindness rocks online, has exploded into an on- and offline community of Middletown Rocks fans.

“I saw it and I knew the kids would have a passion for it,” Bell said, after learning about the nature-inspired creative outlet. “They liked it, and I wanted something to bring the community closer, and the kids and I thought it was really cute,” Bell said.

“I was noticing that a lot of people in all different towns around were painting rocks and hiding them,” said Bell, who approached her good friend Christina Linebarger, 33, who grew up with her.

Bell posted a feeler on Facebook to her friends, asking if they’d be interested in doing the project, but no one responded, she said. That’s when Bell turned to Linebarger for support, asking if she should create a Middletown Rocks Facebook page.

“‘Christina, is this a good idea?'” Bell asked.

“That’s an amazing idea,” Linebarger told her.

Still, Bell was uncertain, since she received no responses. “‘Nobody cares,'” she told Linebarger.

“‘We’re going to make them care. I’m coming over. I’ve got the paints already,'” Linebarger told Bell.

“So I just made it, and I gave it a shot, and it caught on,” Bell said.

Both women are enthusiastic about the opportunities for socialization and exercise that painting and hiding kindness rocks engenders in them, and their children.

“It gets the kids outside. Many of my friends’ kids like to stay inside and watch TV or go on the tablet and just sit. This gets parents out there, active, out together,” said Linebarger, mother of two boys.

“They’re active, they’re running around, they’re looking for it,” Bell said.

“And it brings people together,” Linebarger added.

In three months, Bell estimates, they’ve hidden at least 300 rocks.

And that Facebook following? It’s growing by the day. Each time she gets a request from an individual to join Middletown Rocks — and there have already been 670 — Bell is just thrilled.

Many of these colorful little gems are hidden in easy-to-find places, such as the fronts of restaurants or stores, but there are the occasional tough spots. Bell said her daughter spied one in a “cubby hole” of a tree. Bell had walked by it twice that day.

The women and their children secret away a lot of kindness rocks at schools, at the base or crooks of trees, or at parks like Pierson in Cromwell and Veterans Memorial in Middletown, the Nature Gardens in Middletown, Russell Library, Dunkin Donuts — basically anywhere outdoors.

“They go quickly downtown,” Bell said.

There are some with pink and blue ribbons for pregnancy and infant loss awareness, others for childhood cancer awareness, rocks with pizza, cookie and hot dog designs, a pair of roly-poly porcupines, an eight ball, tiny candy corns, and one for autism awareness spelling out the word in letters: “always unique, totally intelligent, sometimes mysterious.”

And, naturally a big hiding spot is Butternut Park: Since the whole new playscape was installed, “everybody” is going there, Linebarger said. Parents and children who find them there will run back waving one around with a “look what I found,” and, guaranteed, someone there will know about the project and spread the word, said Bell. Her 8-year-old daughter is part of a Girl Scouts Brownie Troop. The popularity of Middletown Rocks, especially among children, prompted her daughter’s troop leader to create a project for the girls to earn one of their badges.

Designs run the gamut: a lime-green frog perched on a rainbow with the words, “miss you” was created to honor a friend who died from suicide, Linebarger said. There’s also a Suicide Awareness Month rock with a checkerboard of white, purple, blue and black squares and ribbons.

And a piece of “cake” — red velvet with cream cheese frosting spilling out from the center, created by Bell’s daughter.

There are characters drawn in the style of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” one with a Starbucks logo, a Dunkin Donuts cup, SpongeBob, Plankton, a single Grinch eye, and a blue metallic cresting wave that reads: “Learn to enjoy the ride.”

Each painted river rock, many with uplifting messages, has the Facebook information painted underneath so people can go to the page, upload a photograph and comments if they like. The women say many finders have become rock artists themselves.

Bell also provides clues, in the form of photos of the rocks and others of their general locations, like the Middletown Post Office, YMCA and Russell Library.

On Bell’s kitchen table sits a giant plastic bucket full of 2-ounce acrylic paints, paint markers and dozens and dozens of paintbrushes from Walmart and Job Lot. The majority of the paints are only 50 cents. Mod Podge spray sealers, which come in matte and glossy, are $5, Bell said.

The women source their river rocks from Home Depot when they’re doing larger batch projects.

“She was the one that turned me onto that,” Linebarger said, “because I was just getting bumpy rocks.”

Looking at a rock with a blue-eyed brown dog and the acronym for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals painted on it, Linebarger said, “I wish I had her talent.”

Linebarger has crafted for as long as she can remember: crocheting, wreath making and creating birdhouses, wedding favors, table decors and more. “She’s a jack of all trades,” Bell said with a laugh, about her friend.

“I wish I had her talent,” said Linebarger, who calls the creative process therapeutic. “We have different styles. I tried to copy that, for the life of me, for two hours and I couldn’t do it. It’s so beautiful,” she said, pointing to one of Bells’ rocks.

Two of the most important things to remember with kindness rocks are: Make sure the paint on each dries fully, especially with multiple colors, and don’t spray the Mod Podge too close to the rock or it’ll blur the designs.

The final instruction is simply to have fun.

When asked how often the women put out their pint-sized art projects, Bell points to a five-gallon bucket. “Sometimes not often enough. I try to do it at least every day because I had a bucket that big overflowing — just for three days of not going out.”

Not always does the creativity flow, Linebarger said. “Sometimes I can bang out 10 rocks, and other times, I get stuck and do two rocks, because it’s just not coming out the way I pictured,” Linebarger said. “For me, it’s all on the day. I don’t have this talent all the time.”

It’s a little different for Bell. “When the kids are off at school, it’s relaxing, it just flows. Then when the kids come home, they have their time,” she said.

“The kids will actually be dumping paint: You have to watch them.”

The pastime has taken the women and their kids to places they may never have gone before: state parks, the Wadsworth Mansion, Crystal Lake, Castle Craig in Meriden, and Middletown’s Nature Gardens.

“I don’t think people quite know what this is yet,” Linebarger thought, about everyone — until she met a grandmother who told her she loved to work on these small-scale artworks with her grandchildren on the weekends. The woman, who is elderly, Linebarger said, is not on Facebook, or, she was told, “on that Tube thing.”

The goal — for people of all ages — is simply to brighten someone’s day, Linebarger said.

“If you’re having a hard time, or something or somebody is on your mind; say your parent passed away and this is his or her birthday, and you come across the cake one, or your dog just passed away,” Linebarger said, pointing out a sunny yellow rock bearing the words, “Sing like nobody cares.”

“Our lives are full of so much stress and that’s why, if you do one thing today, come to the site and hide a rock or paint a rock,” Linebarger said. “Just come to the site and say hello to us.

“If we do one nice thing a day for someone, the world would be such a better place,” she said.




For more information: The Middletown Press,