Tara Brogan did not expect to make more new friends than she could count, or discover places she never knew existed in her hometown. But she did, and it's all because of a Facebook page and a few rocks.
Brogan joined a Facebook group called Oldsmar Rocks, created for "rockers'' — artists of all sorts who create whimsical art on minicanvases otherwise worthy of a good toss or skim and then leave them anonymously for strangers to find.
She is one of the thousands across the country who have joined similar groups. There are at least a dozen groups in Tampa Bay alone, from St. Petersburg to Palm Harbor, Dade City to Plant City.
Brogan had heard about Oldsmar Rocks from her mother, who heard it from a friend who most likely heard it from someone else, said Brogan.
"I guess that's how it goes," she said. "More and more people join in. My kids and I have been painting and hiding rocks ever since."
Unlike last summer's Pokémon Go craze, there's no corporate giant behind this wave and no electronics required. There's no deadline to join and no prerequisite. All you need are rocks, paint and the gumption to get outside.
Here's what you do: You find or buy rocks small enough to carry. Make sure the surface is clean. Add your personal touch with paint or markers on one side, and on the other write the name of the Facebook group you belong to (such as Oldsmar Rocks). Finally, hide the rock in a public place for someone else to find. Perhaps the finder will then take a photo of your rock and post it on the page.
"They can keep it though, or they can hide it again," said Brogan, 34.
On Feb. 28, Brogan, her sons Skyler, 12, and Ryan, 1, and daughter, Lily, 7, spent the afternoon in Sheffield Park. Their mission: to hide 70 rocks adorned with pictures or simple messages like "love'' and "peace.''
Lily and her mom placed a rock decorated with a pink-and-white bird on a tree branch. On a trail near the water, they made a tic-tac-toe board out of sticks, adding nine rocks marked with X's and O's. Skyler was responsible for posting photos or clues to the Facebook group.
"Maybe they'll play tic-tac-toe before they take the rocks," said Lily, a second-grader at Oldsmar Elementary.
Dave Gussak is the chairman of art education and an arts therapy professor at Florida State University. He believes art rocks have come at a time when people are feeling a disconnect.
"I think it is brilliant that people are doing this. People are feeling a loss of community because of so many strong and differing opinions out there that are causing schisms in groups," he said. "It creates a network of shared connections and acceptance. It can link people together, making them feel they belong to a group that supersedes anything else, including politics and religion."
The story goes that the first groups were started in Vancouver, Wash., and Forest Grove, Ore., almost at the same time. The founders did not know each other, but they were both mothers, grieving over family tragedies. A report in Vancouver's Columbian newspaper explained that Angelique Vines Reagan, founder of Vancouver Rocks!, felt that making art and leaving it for strangers was a way to help her heal emotionally.
"It got me out of my funk," she said. "Surprisingly, it has brought joy back into my life."
As more and more rocks were discovered, a movement was born. It spread to Cleveland, to New York and finally, with the help of Scooter Urquhart and his family, to Central Florida.
The Urquharts found rocks while in Washington for a wedding last year. When they came home, they "held a family meeting and decided to start Lakeland Rocks," said Scooter Urquhart, 46.
"It was just about the smile I couldn't wipe off my face. It was neat to know someone I didn't even know painted that rock for me to find," he said. "Yes, we do think we were the first in (the region) and now we have more than 30,000 members."
They also triggered more than 20 new groups: From Lake Wales to Tallahassee and Jacksonville.
After watching Lakeland's success, Megan Stephens and a few friends created Plant City ROCKS. Recently, she, along with volunteer instructor Karen Major, held a rock-painting class at the Planteen Recreation Center. The group focused on painting strawberries on rocks to hide during the Florida Strawberry Festival.
"The group also does other activities too," said Stephens, 30. "It's good for parents to have time to socialize while the kids are having fun, and I've even reconnected with old friends."
Maggie Morona, recreation director at the Planteen, agreed. She's the one who encouraged Plant City ROCKS to partner with the city for the art classes.
"This is really organic," Morona said. "I also have a Pokémon Go group, too. I like anything that gets people out in the outdoors, but this is wonderful how it combines art and the parks so well."
Morona admits, however, that there's always going to be one issue: lawn mowers.
"People need to make sure to not hide the rocks where they should not," she said.
Even before Plant City ROCKS started, Morona was hearing rumblings from city landscapers.
"When the group told me they wanted to do this, I had already known the landscapers had collected some rocks," she said. "So I went over and picked up all they had, and we now have a rock garden."
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.