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Chalk the Block hits the streets

By Paul Tadalan
On April 28, 2012

"Meet at 8 p.m. at El Norte restaurant in Edgewater," the tweet said.

Its sender was Spencer Hall, under Twitter alias @ChalktheBlockCH, the group responsible for the inspirational chalk messages appearing along the Red Line such as "Live Boldly" and "Today may be the day you've been waiting for." A month ago the group decided to put a #chalktheblock hash tag on the pieces, and now pictures taken by Chicagoans have been appearing all over Instagram and Twitter.

Waiting at the designated rendezvous point with four shopping bags of colored chalk, Hall is met by Josh Hurley and Michelle Cannariato. All three are in their early to mid-twenties and are members of the Community Christian Church in Edgewater, which is engaged in various community activities such as tutoring, gardening projects and volunteering at the All American Nursing Home.

But every other Tuesday night, they chalk.

"It feels good to know that we're encouraging others," Hall said. "When you put others before yourself, you see that life is better that way."

There are usually six or seven members from both inside and outside of the church that participate - sometimes up to 12 - but on this cold Tuesday evening, it was just the three of them. Once the night's plans are finalized, they immediately split up to different corners of the cross-street, drop their bags of chalk and pull a printout of at least 50 predetermined messages they have chosen as a group. After selecting a message, they get down and start drawing.

"Today may be the day you've been waiting for," Hall's message read, and just as he's finishing, two Edgewater residents - Roger VanHoughon and Chris Benbenek - approach Hall and give thanks for the impact the messages have had on the community.

"It shows that someone is speaking for you," VanHoughon said. "You could have a bad day, but the messages help keep you going."

"It's like they know what you're thinking," Benbenek added. "It's inspiring because it's true and straight from the heart."

Underneath the Bryn Mawr Red Line stop, Cannariato wrote "Change is Possible." A mother of one, she finds joy in being able to find time in her week to do good in the community.

"Our goal is to encourage people who live in darkness," Cannariato said. "We hope our messages will help bring them to the light."

Walking home from work, Edgewater resident Glenna Kendrick noticed Cannariato and rushed over. After expressing her excitement of finally meeting the people responsible for the messages, she's given a piece of chalk and invited to draw the #ChalkTheBlock hash tag. Enthused, she got down on her knees and started drawing.

"It changes how I feel every time I read what they write," Kendrick said. "I'm really honored that they would let me participate in what has been a life-changing experience for me every morning."

Kendrick's enthusiasm is not uncommon to the Chalk The Block movement, as residents, local businesses and law enforcement constantly show their support.

"It's what it's all about," Hurley said. "She thinks we're making her night, but she's really making ours."

After the three finish their messages, they get into Hall's car and go up and down the Red Line between Loyola and Argyle, tagging street corners, bus stops and train entrances, anywhere the messages can be seen to help break people from the monotony of their daily commutes.

"The overall message is to just take a moment to think about what you could do to make yourself happy," Hurley said. "What would be required of you today that would make you excited about living?"

The movement began several months ago when their pastor, Rich Gorman, couldn't help but feel a sense of hopelessness within the community. He explained how residents were scared of losing jobs and carrying heavy loads of grief upon their shoulders.

"I wanted people to no longer feel defeated," he said. "But I had to ask myself, 'How can we encourage people in a place where people aren't encouraged?'" One day while Gorman was walking to the L, observing the people around him, he noticed something.

Everyone was looking down.

Joined by his church members, Gorman came up with the idea for the messages that continues to raise spirits today. He explained how inspiring people through chalk is just a smaller piece of the puzzle of what happens when people take the initiative to help others, creating a ripple effect that may occur when you instill hope into even just one person.

"You can't give what you don't have," Gorman said. "What a difference could be made if everyone in the city wanted to help others. Great things could happen."

Now that word is out, inspirational chalk message groups have been appearing all over the country in major areas such as Los Angeles, Oakland and Florida. Here in Chicago, the group welcomes everybody in the city to come join them on their bi-weekly outings and see how a little chalk can go a long way.

The messages usually last between three to five days, but on this occasion it rained the next day, washing away the chalk. One of the many downfalls of working with such a fragile medium, explained Hall. But he knows it was worth the effort, remembering the people the group encountered the night before and how they made their days just a little bit better.

"I could have been at home doing nothing except watching TV," Hall said. "But that's boring. It's all about living a good story. Chalking beats TV even if it does rain."

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