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Noticing Neighbors Alyssa’s Wishes


There is a high chance that, without knowing it, you have seen an Alyssa’s Wishes rock while you’re out and about. Alyssa’s Wishes is an organization that spreads kindness in the name of a loved one’s legacy. Karen Houck and her daughter carry on Alyssa’s love of kindness through their work in the community, and Karen sat down to share how the kindness messages have travelled across the world.


Hayley: In your words, what is Alyssa’s Wishes?

Karen:

Well I run Alyssa’s Wishes with Alyssa’s sister, Ashley. My daughter Alyssa passed away in 2011 from an accidental prescription drug overdose. And in 2017, we joined in on The Kindness Rocks Project, which spreads rocks with kind messages painted onto them all over the world.


I realized that painting the rocks with these messages would be super therapeutic for me to do, and we were always a crafty bunch. The rocks going out into the world has been a way to send Alyssa’s spirit out into the world, and to carry on her legacy.


Hayley: Did she love to travel? Karen: Yes, and we have so many people that have taken them around the globe! If you go on our website, there are maps of all the places we have been. Each year on her birthday, we try to add something new to the mix. So last year we opened a free library called The Little Ladybug Library on our front lawn. It was right in the middle of a pandemic when all the general libraries were closed, so it was very well received.



Timing is everything. So we basically have a party on our lawn every day! We're a destination now, especially here in the summer. It's a great neighborhood to walk in, there are a lot of people walking dogs and kids riding bikes. Our street on Bristol already had its own traffic, so the library has been incredibly well received beyond my expectations.


Hayley: How did the Kindness Rocks Garden start?


Karen:

Well, that's a funny story. I was always the PTA president, Girl Scout troop leader, and very crafty. I also have a degree in horticulture. So I've always been Earth Mother-ish. My girls and my Girl Scouts were brainwashed into making compost and being very green in the 90s. So we would let ladybugs free together because they are good bugs and they eat the bad bugs. They are part of integrated pest management. So we like ladybugs! In the summer they go on the rose bushes and eat the food and then fly away.


Hayley: Yes to natural pest management! Karen:

They're so fun. They come in a Chinese food container, and we would go set them free. My girls and I always did that.

Alyssa would dress up as a ladybug for Halloween, her email had the word “ladybugs” in it. It's just our thing. So in 2017, a friend of mine from New York found a little ladybug rock, and sent me a picture of it on my Facebook.


She asked, “Do you know anything about this?” I came back with: “What is that!” So she told me, “People down here, they paint these rocks and they leave them around for other people to find.” And it was literally the week of Alyssa's birthday. She said, “I feel like I have to bring this to you.” We are here in Missouri, and she was in Florida. And that connection lining up is just super cool, you know?


She sent me the pictures and eventually mailed me the rock. But in the meantime, I got on Mr. Google to check it out. So by the end of the day, we had found Megan Murphy and The Kindness Rocks Project.

Hayley:

What is the goal of it? Karen:

What she started with this project is called The Art of Connecting, and that is the truest statement because you always hope that the right message finds the right person. Now we're 3, almost 4 years in. And it all started from one rock. Hayley: So then you joined in. Karen: That’s when both Ashley and I were like: OK! We can do this. We're both crafty people. This will be great. I told her I thought it would be very therapeutic for me to do the painting, which has come to be very true.


We needed a name, and between the two of us we came up with Alyssa’s Wishes. Hayley: What are some messages you write on the rocks?


Karen:

Well, it's funny because I have always had Karen-isms. My children and my extended children called my sayings that, even before Alyssa passed away. “You don't get this day back,” you know, those cheery sort of thoughts.


I like to smile big. Like if someone finds a rock, and it makes them smile, it could alter their day! Because everybody's fighting something no one knows about.


Hayley:

So it's the right message, right person, but it’s also the right moment. Karen: Yes, and it just makes you stop and pause to put some thought into it. I was an event planner for work, so give me a theme and I’ll stick to it! When we go to a concert, I'll do song lyrics to leave behind. If you travel to Italy and need rocks, I'll write in Italian.


Hayley:

Wow, you've done other languages!


Karen:

Yes, all over.


Hayley:

That's amazing.


Karen:

Mr. Google is your friend!


Hayley:

It’s really neat to think that you don't know where these rocks go. Just the fact that they could travel all over.

Karen:

People get so excited. My friends tell me when they’re travelling! They say: “I'm going to go, and I need rocks!” I love making a bunch of rocks, and then waiting for them to be found and posted because I always write to tag us on the back: “When found, please post a picture.”



You have to have faith that it was found by the right person and made that person smile! Even if you don't get to hear it, it's a quiet kindness. You can't wait for the acknowledgment or the accolades for doing the right thing, and that's a great lesson, you know what I mean?

Hayley: Absolutely.









Karen:

Don't get me wrong, there have been times where I travel and take 100 rocks and hear about none! But then there are other times, like this week, where our rocks are being tagged from Connecticut, and Montana. Sometimes I can figure out how they got there, and other times I have no clue!




Hayley: Do any recent stories come to mind? Karen: Oh yes, we had one in the middle of the pandemic. I had a woman reach out to me from Australia to tell me she had one of our rocks! Hayley: Wow. Karen: She found it on vacation in the UK, and brought it home to Australia. Just amazing.

We had never been to Australia before, so that was great. My husband gets to fill in the map on our website, which is his favorite part of the job. Hayley:

Do they tag you on Instagram? How do they reach out?

Karen: Yes, Facebook or Instagram, we get messages all the time. Some messages are heartbreaking, some heart warming, but people will tell their story.


One gentleman found a rock curbside on his way to chemo. Chemo treatments are really, really heavy ones. Those people tend to definitely reach out more. We get to be a compassionate friend, and we really connect to people who have lost a child.


Hayley: That must be meaningful. Wow. Karen: The very first time that ever happened was when we first moved to Missouri. I'm from Louisiana, and we still own the house there. I had gone up to sell it, and we had a tenant who left it a mess. It was awful. I went to pay the gas bill to get the gas turned back on.


I'm sitting in the house by myself, and had made a rock that said: “Stay Strong.” I drove to the gas company and found out they were closed for lunch, so I'm really annoyed now. You know, I'm just tense. So I leave this “Stay Strong” rock on the curb in front of the gas company and went about my business.


The next day I hear from a woman whose daughter found the rock, and her daughter used to self harm. She shared that she had the same words tattooed on her arm, and it even almost looked like my handwriting! Hayley: No way. Karen: Way. I was just like, OK. I mean, that was one of the first times where a story was super connected to the moment. You can't argue with it.

Hayley: No, you can’t plan it. Karen: Connections like those come from time to time.


Hayley:

You mentioned how you have to release expectations when you leave a rock behind. What kind of intention do you have when you place the rock or when you send it to another country? What goes through your mind?


Karen:

Well, I mean, when Alyssa passed away she was only 20, and she had a bucket list. On it, she said she wanted to travel the world. Even though her life was very short, it was very full. Hayley: Sure. Karen: But at the same time, when somebody is going to go to Italy or Hawaii and take rocks, those are places that she didn't get to go. So I feel like her sister and I are continuing her bucket list, you know? My intent is really to finish the work her life was supposed to. To some extent, it completely does.


Hayley:

That's beautiful.

Do you have special moments with your daughter when you are working on this?


Karen:

Oh yeah. Especially now that we're together, because she just moved here to Lee’s Summit. We always love to paint together, and I think we both enjoy the fact that we can not be sad.

Hayley: Right, absolutely.


Karen:

Like we get to do something positive. There’s a paint table that we're painting the rocks on right now, it's usually by the couch. So we can sit in the living room at the end of the day and paint for a bit.

Having had only two girls, it's super important to her. And now she has a child of her own and, of course, she had to be a girl!

Hayley: You said you start a new thing for Alyssa’s Wishes every year. Is there anything coming up that you're excited about?


Karen:

Oh yes, it turns out trying to top ourselves every year is getting kind of hard! That's a good thing. We've done some extraordinary things.

The library is something I’m really excited about. I literally have 5 separate 8 foot bookshelves in my garage stacked with books! I make sure the library is filled each day and, weather permitting, also put out long tables of books that are all donations. The amount of time I spend out there is joyful for me.


Hayley:

So the library is fully donated? Karen: Yes, and it's like Christmas. People drop off boxes of books on my porch every day, I get to go through them, wipe them down, and get to know the kinds of homes they came from in a beautiful way. Based on the books they give me, I can see how old their kids were—or if they had twins, I know they’ll have two of everything. I get a sense of their home.


So this year, we are putting a table out to let people actually paint rocks while they're here. They can take them with them or leave the rocks in the garden. That part is always the kid’s choice.

Hayley: Good call. Karen: We've been keeping tabs on how many books I've touched. And we've started to do some donations, too, because there are just so many. I just brought a box to Lead to Read Kansas City, because sometimes people will actually give me new books. Like I've had teachers bring me multiples of reasonably new books from classrooms. So I sort it in such a way that I can set it aside and then donate it. Hayley: Wow.

Karen: I do it where I can, but I would love to be more charitable, you know what I mean? Because there are so many literacy charities that could use books, but they really just want new books, right? Hayley: Totally. I see what you’re saying.

Karen: I would like to do that a little bit more. And again, I would really love to have something a little bit more permanent up on the East Coast, but I don't know what that would mean! Hayley:

So you're holding the intention and kind of seeing where it goes, right?


Karen:

Exactly. It's been quite a year. I mean, it's amazing to think that we've touched thousands of books that are brought through from my front porch to the garage.


Fun fact, Jennifer Hunsinger from Project Happiness is in my neighborhood. And it’s the same neighborhood that— Hayley: You’re in the same neighborhood? What! This has got to be the happiest street ever!


Karen:

You know what? We are. It's amazing, it really is. I always say that we are so lucky to be here.


We have some signs using her material that we put in our front yard.


We have a bookworm, we have made a ladybug, and we love making little photo op stations with face cut outs. Hayley: Oh, that is great. Karen: So it's basically a circus!

Hayley:

Is there any goodness that you've seen through this project that's really surprised you?


Karen:

That's a good question. I mean, I truly believe that people are genuinely good.


I'm just always happily surprised at how nice everybody is to us. I have my teenage girls that stop by. You'll love this one. They live on Jen's block, like two blocks over, and come to check out the chapter books.


They're very hip, and have pink sparkly backpacks when they come. Because they do actually bring the books back and return them, which I’m fine either way, but it is nice. So these girls come on scooters, they sit on the ground at the rock garden and really debate on which rock to take. They are very thoughtful about it.


They also leave me notes in the guest book and their messages are hysterical. I love it! They’re my Chapter Book Chicks. The library is always full for everyone, but I think of them when I stock up for the day.



To keep up with the latest news from Alyssa’s Wishes, follow along on Facebook, Instagram, or watch the map grow on the website.

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