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Thousands work to spread joy one rock at a time

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Cartoon and children’s literary characters. Sports team logos, animals and insects. Hearts, rainbows and hot air balloons. Inspirational messages, Bible verses or even just one simple word like “Love” or “Family.”

Tiny masterpieces are popping up all over Shelby County and can be found in the simplest of places —on small rocks.

901 Rocks! is both an online community and an outreach program that is about as simple as it gets. Get a rock, paint it or decorate it however you like (don’t forget to tag it with “#901 rocks”), seal it from the elements, and put it somewhere to be found.

The purpose is just as simple—to make someone’s day a little better by finding one of the brightly colored treasures.

The 901 Rocks! Facebook group has more than 17,000 members and climbing. You can post clues and photos to the Facebook page to help people find yours or just anonymously place your rocks around town.

Rocks are being found everywhere from downtown, Midtown and East Memphis to Bartlett, Cordova, Germantown and Collierville.

Schools and businesses are finding ways to get involved. Stations to make the rocks are popping up at school events, restaurant kids’ nights and in art classrooms.

Wendy Stinson of Eads painted one in honor of the “Llama Llama Red Pajama” author, Anna Dewdney, who passed away recently at the age of 50.

Stinson’s 8-year-old son goes to PDS and found his first rock when he was getting out of the car in the carpool line one morning. Then they were hooked.

“I think it’s great for families; I think it’s great for the community,” Stinson said. “We saw a bunch of people looking for them at Shelby Farms Park over the weekend, and I just think it’s great that more people are making art.”

Lisa Dawson had the original idea for 901 Rocks! as something that would help her three kids use their creativity and get outside and away from electronics this summer.

“I wanted to use their love of art and creativity to do something as a family,” Dawson said. “And it is something that is fun for an adult or a kid to find.”

“You don’t have to be a great artist to do this,” she added. “It can be as simple or as complicated as you want, and it’s really about the feeling you are creating.”

Dawson’s 7-year-old daughter and 8-year-old twin sons enjoy making the rocks, and they have made more than 100. She believes the message is bigger than the small rocks.

“There is so much negativity in Memphis and everywhere, really,” Dawson said. “It’s nice to have something positive for a change.”

“We are a community still, and we support each other,” she added. “It’s not just about what your hear on the news.”

Dawson keeps a pile of rocks in the middle of her dining room table in case inspiration strikes. She keeps finished rocks in the console of her car so she can leave them around town wherever the family goes.

Dawson has been honestly surprised by the response, and it has “blown her away” how quickly the group has grown since it first began in mid-July.

Shannon Shivers of Collierville enjoys painting the rocks—she has done characters from Fraggle Rock, The Flintstones and Pokémon. She usually plants hers in East Memphis.

“I don’t really care to ever find one,” said Shivers, whose husband’s rocks featuring The Beatles and Figment from Walt Disney World’s Epcot were also popular. “I’m just glad that people like mine.”

“I think there’s no question that it’s always good to feel like you’re involved with the community,” Shivers added. “You can have the worst art rock or the best art rock, and everyone is still excited to find it—there’s no competition.”

Renee Davis of Cordova was especially touched when a woman from Lakeland hid rocks near her 6-year-old son’s school since she heard he wanted to find some.

“You just don’t hear about someone doing something anymore just to make them smile,” Davis said. “It’s about doing something completely selfless just to brighten someone’s day or maybe give someone a boost.”

“It just keeps going on and on and on, and it’s pretty cool.”

Her younger son, 2-year-old Bo, found a rock on a walk and wouldn’t let go of it for more than an hour.

While some people are buying the rocks, paint pens and paint from local stores, the Davis family noticed that a relative had a bunch of rocks in their driveway just waiting to be painted.

Amy McSpadden, an art teacher at Bruce Elementary, helped found 901 Rocks! with Dawson.

Sometimes her students paint as many as 50 rocks in a day.

Both women live in Midtown but didn’t want to limit it to one part of town, so rocks can be found anywhere in the “901” area code. Keep your eyes peeled at parks, schools, playgrounds, walking paths, outside of businesses and near area churches.

“Life is so busy now, and this is simple,” added McSpadden, who has painted an estimated several hundred rocks and carries the supplies with her. “And I think people are embracing the simpleness of it.”

It also helps bring people together, McSpadden said. Four strangers met and worked together to find a rock in the Malco Paradiso parking lot.

“It’s not about finding a rock,” she added. “It’s about building those relationships and community. It’s about cultivating kindness, spreading joy and expecting nothing in return.”


By Julie Turner, special to the Express.

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