If you’re ever out on a walk in San Diego’s East County, the last thing you would probably want to see is a snake. But on one walking trail in Santee, a makeshift “rock snake” is the first thing you see – a colorful, public art piece with a powerful message.
It’s called the COVID-19 Rock Snake and it can be found in the dirt beneath the wooden fence that lines the path on Walker Preserve Trail on Magnolia Avenue.
The “snake” is a project spearheaded by the popular community group Santee Rocks and is made of the colorful, painted rocks for which the group is known. It has been there since June, getting bigger by the day.
On the fence, a sign explaining the project reads: “Enjoy, take pictures and feel free to add a rock to the snake, and let’s see how long we can make the COVID-19 snake. Thank you for joining in the fun and stay safe.”
Santee Rocks has been around for several years, on Facebook since March 2017. Its mission statement on its Facebook page: “spread joy, kindness and a sense of community through creativity and random acts of kindness.”
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The group paints rocks with pretty pictures or messages of love and hope, and hides the rocks all over town. Whoever finds a painted rock is supposed to snap a photo of it, post the photo and a message on the Facebook group's page, then re-hide the rock for another person to find and enjoy.
The Facebook group has grown to nearly 16,000 members – or "Rockers,” as they’re known – many of whom paint their own rocks to help keep the game of hide-and-seek going strong. Anyone can join in on the game.
It is many of these devoted Rockers who have contributed to the growing rock snake at Walker Preserve over the past few months. Many of the rocks are painted with uplifting messages to offer a glimpse of hope during these tough times.
Like the people who paint the rocks, not a single one is the same.
“We just take this humble little stone and we turn it into a treasure,” Sandi Knickerbocker, a member of Santee Rocks, told NBC 7. “I love that it makes someone feel good, even for just a minute.”
“Unity,” one rock along the path reads.
“Bee Kind,” said another.
“Smile and Shine,” reads another.
The rock snake starts at the very top of the path along the trail and curves its way along the fence line for quite a distance. The point is to keep adding to the project so that maybe it can stretch all the way down the full 1.3-mile trail, which goes from Santee into Lakeside.
The trail remains open for recreation under COVID-19 guidelines, which include wearing a face mask and practicing social distance while walking.
In addition to the rock snake art project at the walking trail, Santee Rocks is continuing to spread joy in the community with another project this holiday season: Painting rocks for seniors.
Knickerbocker told NBC 7 the group set out to collect 400 painted rocks for the Santee Rocks 4 Santee Seniors initiative and, by Monday, locals had painted and donated 402 of them.
“We just wanted to do something for the seniors,” Knickerbocker explained. “A lot of people who dropped off the rocks said it gave them a sense of purpose at a time that’s really difficult for them.”
Knickerbocker said the stones will surely bring smiles to the faces of seniors.
“And I need more goodness,” she added. “You know, it’s been a rough year.”
John Hossick, of the Santee Mobilehome Owners Action Committee, will help deliver care packaged to local seniors this month. Each package will include an ornament, a pair of socks, a hand-written card, a treat and, now, the painted Santee rocks.
“There’s a lot of thought that was put into it, and a lot of time,” Hossick said. “And they’re very unique. And it’s something you can put on your porch so that when you walk by it, you're gonna always think, ‘Oh my gosh, someone was thinking about me.’”
Hossick said the program to distribute the care packages to seniors was created by four years ago by his husband, Buddy Rabaya, who died this past April of a stroke.
Hossick said he always understood the impact of what Rabaya was trying to do for the community.
And, judging by the response from people donating the little pieces of rock art to the program, the community gets it, too.
“I can't tell you how many times that I'm touched by the pure compassion of people,” Hossick said, holding back tears. “It's the true spirit of the program. It’s the true spirit of people just helping people. Period. Without any expectation, just doing it from their heart.”