Moraine Valley Community College assistant professor of Criminal Justice, Michelle Furlow, shows one of her kindness rocks.

Moraine Valley Community College assistant professor of Criminal Justice, Michelle Furlow, shows one of her kindness rocks.

Last summer, Moraine Valley Community College assistant professor of criminal justice Michelle Furlow’s son slipped off a high dive and onto the concrete. He survived, and their residual desire to pay it forward lived on, garnering her a chance to speak at the TEDxNaperville conference on Nov. 10.

Furlow feels fortunate and lucky for what she has, particularly her two kids. While at the local pool last year, Furlow’s eight-year-old son, Jackson, slipped off the 14-foot high dive, landing on the concrete. A couple of neighbors also happened to be at the pool, namely a trauma nurse and EMT firefighter, who helped make sure he was okay. Jackson was scared and dazed but suffered only a broken collarbone.

From that scary incident, Furlow started a project to express her gratefulness for her helpful neighbors and Jackson’s wellbeing—kindness rocks.

“Because it was so traumatic, I felt very lucky and wanted to acknowledge how fortunate I felt. I was lucky I had a community and people that were there and helped me. If not, things could have gone differently,” she said. “It’s my way of repaying the universe because I was so grateful he was okay.”

An artist by hobby, Furlow and Jackson started painting kindness rocks. They use various paints on landscaping or found rocks. They brush on nature scenes, words of inspiration or holiday themes. On the back they scribble #Michellemagpie (she also has an Instagram and Twitter account of the same name). Then they leave the colorful rocks in parks or on benches for anyone to pick up. Sometimes the lucky finders take photos of the rock and post on social media using her hashtag, but that’s not the point.

“It’s a fun thing and anonymous. I don’t get a ton of feedback [from the hashtag], but that’s not necessarily the point. When people find them, they think it’s neat. It’s about building community through a simple gesture,” Furlow said. “My son and I paint constantly, as much as we can. Probably every day. We’ve left them every place we go. Someone sent a photo with a rock from Iceland. I’ve heard feedback from Massachusetts and Florida. They take it with them and leave them somewhere else. We’ve left about 1,000 rocks.”

Furlow shared another story with the storytelling group The People Tree, which was seen by someone from TEDxNaperville, a community organization and “disruptive ideas conference” that shares impactful ideas and stories from Chicagoland thinkers. TEDx contacted her about joining other storytellers on stage.

TEDxNaperville is a daylong event that has 12 people from a variety of industries, different experts, visionaries, bright minds and business leaders discussing unique and challenging concepts.

“I know of TEDx and Ted Talks, and I thought, really? Me? I usually talk to 25 people and half are looking at their watch. They expected 1,000 people at this event. I’ve never spoke in front of that many people,” Furlow said. “Overall, I feel it was an incredible honor to share my story. I felt I truly connected with the audience, who received me so warmly before, during and after my presentation. I was especially moved to find out that after my presentation, the audience was invited to paint their own kindness rock at a station during intermission. Over 750 rocks were painted for the audience to take home and share. I’m so humbled to be a part of sharing so much good will and community.”