Chalk it up to Creativity: Artists Transform a Town to Support Community Wellness


Before I began working with the Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS) in Western Massachusetts, I didn’t know that Springfield was also the hometown of beloved children’s book author Dr. Seuss. But soon I would see this small, determined organization pull off an ambitious event in which artists created pieces so colorful and creative that Dr. Seuss would have been proud.

In 2022, arts and cultural organizations carried out a series of science-backed, creativity-fueled CDC Foundation-funded projects to inspire people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and flu. One of these partners was CMSS, a nonprofit community arts school with a focus on music education which also maintains a commitment to promoting well-being in their greater Springfield community.

As CMSS staff gave me a tour of the city, I marveled at the town’s charm and beauty and wondered if Dr. Seuss drew inspiration for his whimsical drawings from this unique place. We encountered murals around every corner, strings of lights draped across alleyways, and parks filled with numerous art installations, many of which encouraged public engagement.

I came to Springfield to attend the CMSS event Chalk for Change, a day-long event with a festival feel that took place on a Saturday afternoon in downtown’s Court Square. That day, dozens of artists used colored chalks to create dazzling drawings on the sidewalks, while a large crowd mingled among the displays and listened to live music. Throughout the day, I participated in one fun activity after another, including helping a child paint a canvas tote bag at the family-friendly creation space, joining a group of line dancers and listening to music and spoken word poetry performances. I also spoke with volunteers at the mobile vaccination clinic offering COVID-19 vaccinations and chatted with a community-member while he received a free haircut from the pop-up barbershop.

From mask-wearing puppets to vaccine-themed portraits, the art on display supported the event’s focus on community resilience. Beyond the activity on Court Square, there were aerosol artists creating works across the city, spray painting their messages of hope and healing on permitted sidewalks. I asked one of these artists what inspired him to spend the day creating graffiti-style art on the sidewalk. His reply was simple: he wanted to help heal the community from the loneliness and isolation driven by the pandemic.

Chalk for Change was put on in conjunction with the Trust Transfer Project and Springfield Cultural Partnership, which carried out many of the activities and facilitated partnerships with the artists. And these partnerships were affirming and fruitful. By the end of the day, artists had graced Springfield with 14 new aerosol-created murals, all depicting messages of hope, trust and well-being.

The event also offered a mobile vaccine clinic provided by Behavioral Health Network (BHN), a CMSS Community Health Partner through Mass Cultural Council's CultureRx Social Prescription Program.

“Being able to call on BHN to join us at our event exemplifies how we utilize our cross- sector partnerships to intentionally cultivate community care through an Arts & Culture perspective—and it’s a win-win!” said Vanessa Ford, Trust Transfer Project/CultureRx program director. “This day was an opportunity for us to mobilize artists and inspire the community with powerful artistic messages that build vaccine confidence, and we succeeded. We look forward to continuing to spread hope, healing, mental wellness and community trust as we celebrate the resiliency of our great city of Springfield.”

Chalk for Change provided a safe space for artistic expression and an open dialogue about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic while reminding the community of the importance of getting vaccinated. I was struck by how the art created during the event connected people from across this vibrant community—transforming the streets of Springfield and inspiring us all to improve and transform our own health.

Funding for this effort is made possible through a subaward from the CDC Foundation and is part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) financial assistance award totaling $2,500,000.00 with 100 percent funding from CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government. 

Photo Credit: Edward Cohen Photography & Rachael Casey / CDC Foundation

RCasey headshot
Rachael Casey, MPH, is federal program manager for the CDC Foundation’s department of infectious disease programs.