Best Humanitarian: Cecily King

Maggie Smith
Cecily King

When Cecily King said, “I love to get away with things,” I laughed, because what she’s “gotten away with” — posting encouraging signs on highway overpasses around Columbus — has changed, andsaved, lives. But if you tell her that, she’ll probably break eye contact with you and say something self-deprecating.

King’s other grassroots humanitarian projects, including a “compliment booth” on High Street and a free water stand at Columbus Pride, have required her to interact with people. But she had planned for the signs — what she called her “most vulnerable project” — to be completely anonymous. “If no one is going to catch you,” she said, “you don’t have to talk about it.”

But she did get “caught,” and she has had to talk about it. Thanks to social media buzz andstories in Alive and elsewhere, people now know the person behind the signs. There’s a good chance you’ve seen them around Columbus: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”; “You are worthy.” Maybe they’ve kept you going. Maybe they’ve reminded you of something about yourself that you’d forgotten.

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“We are all looking for signs all the time,” King said. “The hope is that somebody sees it when they need to see it.” If the right words at the right time can make a difference, if words are things that can be there to catch you when you start to slip, or hold you in a moment when you need to be held, her words have caught and held me more than once.

I remember driving on I-71 last year, when I was feeling particularly fragile, and feeling overcome at seeing “You are loved” and “You are valuable.” I’d needed a sign, and a sign appeared right in front of me. (As it turns out, in a way, King and I have been speaking to one another for years. During my divorce, I read her signs some days as if they had been placed there just for me. During her divorce, she carried a print-out of my poem, “Good Bones,” in her wallet.)

“I wouldn’t wish anxiety and pain on my worst enemy,” she said. So the signs are for anyone —anyone— who might need them. King, her oldest daughter, and her daughter’s friend started going out together and “just kept doing it — and mostly getting away with it.” King is always on the lookout for new overpass locations, saying, “All I need is a sidewalk and a fence.” The materials are modest, too: bedsheets or tarps, spray paint, zip ties.

The fact that she’s reached out to us in our cars is brilliant; when we drive we are often alone, and because we don’t have our screens or our friends or our jobs to distract us, our minds are chewing on our thoughts. We can think and feel in the privacy of our cars; we can grieve there, too.

We are all looking for signs all of the time. And thanks to Cecily King, sometimes we find one exactly when we need it.