No stone left unpainted: McKenzie Towne Rocks keeps Calgary neighbourhood rolling during coronavirus

Rock project inspires neighbourhood, but "rocknappers" have scooped up some of the southeast Calgary community's colourful stones

Madelyn Schuba, 10, (left) and brother Joshua Schuba, 12. The Schuba family has painted about 45 rocks. "It's a wonderful, creative family activity for us—relaxing and fun. It's a little something for us to give back to our amazing community," said mom Maria Schuba. KAREN DURRIE / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

While many of us are buttoned into our homes and communities weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, kids and families around the city have found a safe way to “rock out” in their neighbourhoods.

The painted rock movement is not a new one, but it’s seeing a resurgence right now. The trend—which went viral in 2015 with The Kindness Rock Project—has made the news across Canada and in the U.S.

But the residents of McKenzie Towne — a community hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic— have put their own twist on it, by encouraging a look-don’t-touch approach to the rock art.

Family looks for kids’ activities

Charlene Simes and daughter Chloe place some painted rocks. Simes created the McKenzie Towne Rocks Facebook group. KAREN DURRIE / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Around the time Calgary schools and daycares began to close, McKenzie Towne residents Charlene and Chad Simes were laid off. They also lost childcare for their two-year-old daughter Chloe.

Looking for activities to occupy their tot, the family took up painting and hiding rocks around the house, which soon evolved into placing them around the neighbourhood.

Charlene formed a Facebook group called McKenzie Towne Rocks, inviting community members to take part.

RELATED: Calgary music teacher’s trumpet solos strike right note for coronavirus-bound McKenzie Towne seniors

Since schools closed, hundreds of rocks of all shapes and sizes have been placed around the neighbourhood. They’re painted with encouraging messages and bright scenes.

“The reaction has been really positive. We have lots of families who tell me it has kept their kids super busy. It’s a great thing for all ages. My senior mom is alone, and enjoys painting rocks, too,” Simes said.

These projects can lead to positive growth and deeper relationships

Engaging in creative activities is an important aspect of maintaining good mental health, said a Calgary counsellor.

“Those ‘back to basics’ things like art, music, reading and cooking are great activities for families to do together,” said Cathy Keough, director of counselling initiatives at the Calgary Counselling Centre.

“As hard and scary as (the pandemic) is, it can also lead to positive growth and deeper relationships.”

These McKenzie Towne Rocks were placed out in front of the McKenzie Towne Long Term Care centre, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus. KAREN DURRIE / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The painted rocks have even inspired local filmmaker Paige K. Boudreau to create a documentary to share people’s rock stories.

Boudreau noticed the rocks begin to roll into some community Facebook groups when the pandemic hit. She was discouraged by the domination of negative chatter on her timeline about the virus.

“But then I started to see these rock posts. It exploded into something so simple and beautiful, yet essential in bringing the community together,” Boudreau said.

With all her gigs and projects on hold indefinitely, the filmmaker, who often focuses on stories portraying the beauty in simple, everyday things, found her next subject. The COVID ROCKS documentary project was born.

“I knew this was a perfect opportunity for me to highlight hope cropping up in the most unlikely of ways,” she said.

Boudreau is in the initial stages of gathering interview subjects and drafting the film structure. She’s hoping eventually to submit the project for festival play, and says she will likely make it available as soon as possible for the communities that inspired her.

Stones hunters rocking around the southeast Calgary neighbourhood

In McKenzie Towne, the rocks not only brighten a stressful time, people have made a game of a visual scavenger hunt, which is a welcome diversion in the time of shuttered playgrounds and social distancing.

“Normally with these rock groups, you’re allowed to take the rocks you find, or re-hide them. We’ve decided to avoid those things to keep it safe for everybody,” Simes says.

Rock hunters take pictures of finds, leaving rocks where they lie, and post photos to the group, or log what they’ve found. New rocks pop up daily along pathways, by local businesses and ponds.

Recently, though, there’s been a rocky patch.

Mystery disappearance of McKenzie Towne rocks

The McKenzie Towne Rocks are often painted with simple, but inspiring messages. KAREN DURRIE / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

In the past few days, more than 40 painted rocks vanished from around Prestwick Pond and other parts of McKenzie Towne. That’s left rock artists and seekers disappointed.

It’s common for a trickle of them to be pocketed, but a large number at once is unusual, Simes said.

She called 311 to inquire about possible removal of the rocks by City crews.

But John Merriman, the parks community strategist for the south region, said the City didn’t remove them. Even if a complaint had been lodged, they don’t contravene any bylaws.

But, he said, people should be cautious of where they are placed.

“The best place to put them is out of the way of (mowing) equipment or where they are posing a safety risk,” Merriman said.

Most of the area’s maintenance is the responsibility of McKenzie Towne Council. Officials there said their crew didn’t take the rocks, either.

Simes says she hopes the mystery “rocknappers” are just kids taking them home, and not pebble poopers stealing them or throwing them in ponds for kicks. It’s hoped the rocks will reappear if the culprits realize how the activity works.

“I just hope people don’t get discouraged. I want people to keep having fun,” Simes said.

In an effort to prevent rocks being moved or taken, Simes has painted up a number of rocks advertising the Facebook group, so that more people can check it out and get informed on the ground rules.

To join in or be inspired to start the activity in your community, search McKenzie Towne Rocks on Facebook.

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