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5-year-old's idea to rock her sister's world goes viral, bringing the world to their Iowa home

Cora (left) and Becca Salls sit among some of the packages bearing painted rocks that arrived at their former Cedar Rapi
Cora (left) and Becca Salls sit among some of the packages bearing painted rocks that arrived at their former Cedar Rapids home. After the pandemic meant they had to stick close to home, Becca, 5, wanted to bring the world to Cora through a Facebook painted rocks campaign that quickly went viral. The family recently moved to Iowa City, where the stones are being placed in a rock garden for the sisters to enjoy. (Facebook.com/Strengthforcora photos)
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Corrine “Cora” Salls has her very own rock garden underway at her new Iowa City home.

These aren’t just any rocks. They are hand-painted by rock enthusiasts across the United States, Europe and New Zealand, with the promise of some from Africa, once the cost of shipping goes back down.

Not all are rocks. Some are minerals, fossils and shells.

They’re pieces of a project Cora’s family never imagined would come and go so far.

Cora’s journey

Now 7, Cora has been beating the odds since her birth in September 2013 with the rare condition of Trisomy 18. It gives her three No. 18 chromosomes in each cell, instead of two, and brings with it physical, mental and developmental delays. In Cora’s case, all of her vital systems are affected, said her mother, Joy Salls, 35, of Iowa City. Cora has issues with her cardio-, digestive- and pulmonary systems, along with “very severe” developmental and mental delays. Her mom likens her development level to that of a 1-year-old.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with Down syndrome,” Joy said. “Down syndrome is also Trisomy 21, so it’s similar, it’s just a different chromosome that is affected. So Cora has three copies of the 18th chromosome in every cell in her body, as opposed to the normal two that most people would have.”

Doctors at the small Vermont hospital where Cora was born diagnosed her condition after three days and told her parents that she wouldn’t survive. That’s a prognosis they would hear multiple times early on.

A little more than a year later, the family moved to Mount Vernon, to be close to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Joy’s hometown of Iowa City. Joy and Bruce Salls have since divorced, but remain active in co-parenting Cora and her 5-year-old sister, Rebecca, whom they call Becca.

Cora’s specialists at the Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City no longer say that she’s going to die and Dr. Scott Nau, her primary physician at Mercy Cedar Rapids, never has said that. “They’ve kind of stopped telling us that now, because she refuses to listen — luckily,” Joy said with a laugh.

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And even though Cora has been hospitalized “30 or 40 times,” it’s been a year since her last hospitalization. She can sit up by herself and is in therapy to learn how to stand and take some steps with assistance — both great strides for her — and she’s been approved to receive an adaptive tricycle through Variety, the Children’s Charity.

“She’s definitely making progress,” Joy said. “Anytime somebody says she’s not going to do something, I think she takes that and says, ‘Well, guess what?’”

Despite being non-verbal, Cora has ways of making her wishes known.

“She does have much more expression and communication, although not through words or sign language or devices,” Joy said. “It’s more that people who know her can kind of understand her ‘happy, sad’ (expressions). She’s very interactive. ... She really loves people, loves her family, her animals. I think those are the most important things for her that she interacts with — her sister, especially.”

Another of Cora’s great delights has been going for car rides and camping trips in the family’s RV. All that came to a halt with the pandemic. She can still get outside in nice weather and got to go boating this summer, but for the most part, she’s been at home during the pandemic. COVID-19 could kill her.

Rocks project

Since Cora can no longer see the world around her, Becca decided to bring the world first to their Cedar Rapids home, and now to the Iowa City home where they moved this month.

Joy is an avid rock painter, enlisting the girls to help with that project, especially this year, when so many other activities have been put on hold.

Their efforts are part of the international Kindness Rocks Project, asking participants to hide painted rocks in plain sight for others to find, “with the hope that you’ll bring a smile to somebody’s face,” Joy said.

She and the kids especially liked to hide and hunt rocks when camping. However, the insurance had lapsed on their RV a few months ago, then the derecho hit, causing more damage than they can afford to fix. Between that and the pandemic, being homebound helped spark Becca’s rocks for Cora campaign.

On Oct. 15, Joy posted a notice on Painted Rocks!!! — one of the larger Facebook groups for rock painters — and “it just went crazy,” she said. “I never expected it.

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“I posted it, I laid down and took a nap, and when I woke up, I had hundreds of notifications. I think it got shared 1,500 or 1,700 times. I don’t even know how many comments and shares of shares — I couldn’t even follow it anymore.”

She had no idea if anyone would actually follow through — until the mail carrier arrived “with this huge crate of packages,” Joy said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”

They’re still arriving.

“The rocks are awesome, and the girls love them,” she said, “but what gets me are the stories. Every single one comes with a handwritten note.” Some talk about their own losses, others call the family’s story “inspirational.” Some people send maps of the town where they live and others have offered them free stays at a property they own and typically rent out.

Some of the rocks sport “incredible artwork,” Joy said, while others are simple yet heartfelt, like one painted by an 11-year-old boy, who also wrote out a note.

“Regardless of artistic ability or what is actually painted on it, each one has so much meaning,” Joy said. “It’s just so cool.”

She knows full well the effort that went into each one.

“I’m just in awe of the kindness of people,” she said. “Really, it’s such a process and so much time and effort on their part to do this for us. Each and every one — to see the post, to save the address, to find the rock, paint the rock, let it dry, seal it, package it up, write a note, go to the post office, send it off, pay for shipping. It is a lot to ask of somebody, and it’s so appreciated. And just the number that have come is incredible, too.”

She lost track of counting them as she prepared to move, but after three weeks, the number was “well over 300.” She has sealed them all to help them last in the girls’ new outdoor rock garden. The minerals will stay indoors.

She’s ready to pay it forward. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I probably will bury my child, unless something happens to me,” Joy said.

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Ideally, she’d love to hand out the rocks to everyone who comes to Cora’s high school graduation. If Cora doesn’t reach that milestone, Joy would like to give two painted rocks to each person who attends Cora’s funeral.

“I would like eventually for them to end up back into the community and spread the kindness,” she said, “and also carry Cora’s legacy, and spread her love back.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

• Journey: To learn more about Cora Salls and the rocks project, go to Facebook.com/Strengthforcora

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