Small kindnesses fuel King, who recently hung signs reminding local commuters of their value

This past week, local commuters might’ve spotted signs painted with inspiring phrases hung on highway overpasses, the messages reminding passersby that “you are valuable” and “you are worthy.”

The signs were the work of Cecily King, her teenage children and a friend of King’s daughter, whose HOPE tattoo served as the inspiration for a banner intentionally hung on a commuter bridge between Ohio State University and Wilce Student Health Center, where it could more easily be spotted by those who might most need the reminder: “Hold On Pain Ends.”

“It’s a super awesome world, but it’s a super shit world, too, and we can maybe put our thumb on the scale sometimes,” said King, who, with her small crew, painted the slogans on bed sheets, re-purposed banners and plastic tarps before hanging them in easily visible locales with zip ties (the group intends to repeat the project this weekend). “If you can, you’re picking what world you want to live in. I have depression and anxiety, like everyone else does, and I can let that dictate what I do. Or I can let that dictate what I do in a different way by asking, 'What makes me feel better?' And then doing that.”

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King, a Seattle native, has been putting her thumb on the scale, as it were, since college, when she provided free lunches for the homeless once a week for a year. (“If you don’t drink in bars when you’re 20, you have leftover money to do things with,” she said, and laughed.) In more recent times, she’s also run a free water stand at Columbus Pride, passing out almost 1,500 bottles this year, and provided what she termed “artist snacks,” asking poets, painters, etc. to provide a link to a payment app and then sending them a small amount of money to purchase a treat, usually around $5. On occasion she’s also helmed a “compliment booth” on High Street, inviting pedestrians to accept some form of modest praise.

“Sometimes it’s sad to me that it’s not normal for someone to be nice to you. It should be normal,” King said. “I’m not Oprah. I’m not buying someone a car. … Small things are what I have to offer.”

King noted the way that a person’s entire demeanor can change when you tell them that they’re wearing a rad shirt, or that you like their haircut — a transformation that can even exhibit itself physically, with slumped shoulders giving way to a proudly expanded chest.

The painting crew witnessed a similar transformation while hanging its first sign in the early morning hours on a recent weekend, when a man confronted them as they stepped onto an overpass with bed sheet and zip ties in hand.

“He was really standoffish at first, like, ‘What are you guys doing here? What are you putting up?’” King said. “He had the tough guy walk and the teardrop tattoo on his face and everything, but we told him what we were doing and his whole demeanor changed. He was all about it. He even walked us back to the car and placed a blessing on us.”

For King, part of the inspiration for the sign project was being able to reach people within the emotional cocoons of their automobiles, which she said can be solitary spaces for commuters to sit alone with their not-always-healthy thoughts.

“I’ve done a lot of grieving in my car because I have work and kids and all this other stuff, which doesn’t leave a lot of space for that. And I don’t think I’m the only one who does it,” King said. “We grieve in the car. We think about what’s going wrong and why what we’re doing to fix it isn’t working. We think about all the shitty things people say to us. It’s this little capsule of space when we’re going back and forth to work or school or the doctor or the grocery store, and it’s not good for a lot of people because if you leave your brain alone, these things come up. With this it was like, ‘OK, here’s maybe a way we can put something else in there.'”

King brainstormed the slogans with her children, the team considering the many negative messages life can transmit throughout the day, and then trying to hit on words and phrases with which to counter them.

“That’s why we say, ‘You are valuable,’” King said. “So many people feel like they are not. And, it’s not always intentional, but that idea can be reinforced at work, at school, with your family. … If I have something hard I’m dealing with, human beings, by nature, have so much in common that I know I’m not the only one. I think we’re all looking for signs that things are going to be OK.”

Thanks to King and Co., all Columbus drivers have to do for that reminder is look up.