In building community, even the littlest things can make a big difference

  • David Savage, age 5, helped decorate the Little Free Library located at Creekside Park. It features book titles in Hmong, Spanish and Samoan. (Courtesy/Rhiana Gay)
  • The Creekside Park Little Free Library. (Courtesy/Rhiana Gay)

On Halloween, Tina Chapman’s daughter found a rock with a painting of Charlie Brown in a ghost costume hidden in the snow with the words, “You got a rock” written on the back, along with instructions to “Keep or hide, but post to FB @AnchorageRocks.” Chapman was thrilled. Not only was her daughter delighted by her discovery, the rock is part of a communitywide rock painting movement founded by Chapman and Angela Gray 2015.

Inspired by a rock painting club in Texas, Chapman and Gray created the Anchorage Rocks Facebook group as a way to celebrate rocks painted, hidden, and eventually discovered and shared, in Anchorage. The concept was slow to catch on at first; the duo remembers being thrilled when their group hit 100 members a few months after they started, but has since ballooned to its current membership of nearly 14,000 people.

Rocks painted in Anchorage have traveled the world, and have been found as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Guam, South Africa and England. A quick scan through the group shows art ranging from classic cartoons to detailed landscapes, with plenty of holiday-themed designs like Santa Claus or the Grinch.

Chapman says that people participate for different reasons. Some enjoy painting to slow down from the busyness of life, while some are artists simply wanting to share their creations with the community. Others are drawn to hiding rocks and another group to the competition of finding and collecting them.

Noting that their membership “jumped crazy high,” during COVID-19, she attributes their growth to providing a collective experience people can participate in while staying safe. Regardless of why people first join Anchorage Rocks, they become part of the greater purpose to “spread kindness and joy in our community.”

As communities rebuild and reshape themselves in a post-pandemic world, encouraging community connection can help combat the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Emphasizing opportunities to strengthen social ties – which range from close friends to online connections, and can dramatically shape our health, happiness, and even how long we live – will aid in collective resilience and recovery.

Two groups, the Anchorage Park Foundation and Best Beginnings, partnered to bring Little Free Libraries to parks as a way to connect kids to literacy, parks and recreation. The libraries were built during the pandemic, and have become well-used community resources.

Stephanie Schott, the early literacy director at Best Beginnings, a child literacy nonprofit, says one of her favorite parts of Little Free Libraries is offering kids a book when they pass by.

“We were restocking a library in Campbell Park, and a little girl was playing nearby. She came over, and picked up a book. Her parents came over to see what was going on, and then they started looking through the books too,” says Schott. “It’s immensely gratifying to tell them there’s no limit on how many books they can borrow, how long they can keep them, or times they can go back for more.”

Libraries are often built and decorated as a community project, giving each one its own personality. For example, Creekside Park’s Little Free Library is painted with book titles in Hmong, Spanish and Samoan, featuring books by authors who represent the community. Titles include “Molly of Denali,” “Water Protectors,” “Sulwe,” and “I Am Enough.”

Each Little Free Library has volunteer community stewards who care for the library, adding books when inventory is low and assisting with simple maintenance needs. Community members are invited to add their own books to the libraries as well, and Schott delights in seeing all of the different structures around town. Some were created through a partnership Best Beginnings has with the Anchorage Parks Foundation partnership, and others were built by individuals or other organizations.

Schott dreams of a little library in every park, school, bus stop or grocery store. “Little Free Libraries belong in all parts of our community, it is all about sharing and access.”

When building community, even the littlest things can make a big difference.

Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach. Rhiana Gay is a kindergarten teacher at Creekside Park Elementary School, and was recently awarded 2021 African American Educator of Excellence through the Alaska Black Caucus. Fauske and Gay participate in the Women’s Power League of Alaska Mentorship Project.

12/22/2021 - 9:12am