Editor's note: Resources for any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal are listed at the bottom of this article.
She carries the rocks with her everywhere she goes and leaves them for others to find. At the Angel of Grief statue at Stanford University. At high school campuses. On the beach in Carmel. Outside her son's favorite restaurants.
"To the one who finds me: May you always feel loved!" reads one rock, smooth and small and hand-painted with a cheery bouquet of pink heart-shaped flowers.
On the other side of the rock, in her handwriting, are numbers for 24/7 suicide phone and text hotlines.
Jennifer Turner's son, Alexander, a Gunn High School senior, died by suicide in 2017 after battling and receiving treatment for depression and anxiety. His mother started painting rocks with inspirational messages and leaving them around Palo Alto as a means to work through her own grief, while also hoping she might lift others out of their moments of darkness.
"It's all about saving a life," she said.
Turner got the idea for the rocks from a similar breast cancer awareness initiative. A self-described "crafty person," she was drawn to the idea of a simple, meaningful art project. She described it as her grief therapy.
"I was putting everything I could think of on the rocks. 'You were never a burden.' 'You are never alone.' All those things that depression makes you think that are not true," she said.
She added the suicide resources on the back and the social media hashtag #AlecsArmy so people can find the Facebook and Instagram pages where she documents the project. (Her son, who went by Alec, wanted to join the military after high school.)
Turner left a basket of rocks at the Gunn wellness center, where her son received counseling support, for students to hold or take with them if they wanted. In February, for Gunn's mental health awareness week, she brought plain stones for students to paint.
As the project grew, she brought painted rocks to other Palo Alto schools. For middle schoolers, she creates ones with lighter, more playful messages ("I love you a latte!" "Donut give up!") and images (including Baby Yoda, Snoopy and Winnie the Pooh). She finds inspiration for messages and images on Pinterest, in books she's reading or in a beautiful flower she sees while on a walk. She said she spends about 10 to 14 hours a week on the rock project.
Turner goes for frequent walks — at the Stanford campus, the Dish, local parks — and the rocks always go with her. Friends started asking her for stones to take with them on trips. The Facebook page is filled with photos of colorful rocks that have traveled far and wide: on beaches in Santa Cruz and Hawaii, benches in Central Park in New York City, outside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, nestled in the grass in front of Notre Dame in Paris.
"To me, if it helps anybody it's just all worth it," Turner said. "If it just makes them smile, if it just makes them feel better for one minute, it is so worth it.
"If I could grab ahold of any of those kids that are really struggling, I would talk their ear off about how they're supposed to be here and this too shall pass."
The Turners moved to Palo Alto from Kansas City, Missouri, in 2014. By total coincidence, a Bay Area man found the very first rock she left in Kansas City, in a favorite park. He was walking through the park after his sister's memorial, who had died by suicide, Turner said. He brought the rock, decorated with yellow roses, back to the Bay Area and left it at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Spurred by grief, Turner has become an active advocate for suicide prevention. She participates in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness walks in multiple states and helped organize the Peninsula's first-ever Hike for Hope a year ago, which raised money for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention educational programs, research, advocacy and support services for suicide survivors.
She and her husband also have become a resource for other parents. She takes every phone call from mothers and fathers worried about children who struggle with or show signs of depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges. She tells them about the red flags for suicide and asks if they've noticed any changes in their child's emotional or physical state. She champions treatment, from therapy and medication to local outpatient programs for teens. But mostly, she said, she just listens.
She's also found community in a group of local mothers who have lost children to suicide. They usually get together once a month.
Turner said she's found comfort in sharing her experience openly and realizing that her family is far from alone.
"It affects everyone. Everyone has mental health," she said. "We are never alone."
Turner has painted close to 1,000 rocks, most of them unique. A trucker picked up one she left in Carmel, painted with the image of a peacock on the front and the resources on the back, and took it with him as he made his way from California to Chicago. He'd send Turner pictures of the rock as he drove through different states, telling her, "I'm just not ready to give up the rock yet."
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Additional resources can be found here.