'There to make a difference': Community decorates sidewalk at Fairfield school after vandalism

FAIRFIELD — Students at McKinley Elementary School were greeted with positive messages and art in sidewalk chalk on their first day back this week — a stark contrast to the graffiti found there the week before.

The drawings came after the sidewalk of the school was vandalized with spray paint last week. Police said the grafitti read “United States of China” on the sidewalk, and are still investigating the incident.

Police are still investigating as members of the community band together to beautify the sidewalk.

“Following that situation last week, they approached me and they felt a need to give something back,” said Teresa Gingrave, the school’s principal. “Almost to counteract what had happened.”

The group included Fairfield Warde Voices for Equity, the Fairfield Ludlowe Youth for Equity, parents, teachers and Beloved Community, which is a group from Fairfield Woods Middle School.

“The suggestion was, on Martin Luther King Day, which is very symbolic, they come to McKinley with a group of folks and teens and do some chalk art with positive messages as a surprise for the students and staff coming in on Tuesday,” she said.

Tuesday was the school’s first day back in-person.

Gingrave said that made it like a new day, adding the positive messages written in chalk were centered around kindness, acceptance and unity. She said it came at a divisive time in the country, in which the climate “may not be the healthiest it has been.”

“It certainly was a breath of fresh air to walk into the campus on Tuesday morning, following Martin Luther King Day and be confronted with an amazing work of art,” she said. “It’s really what our children need to be exposed to.”

Margaret Capron, an art teacher from Fairfield Warde High School, was one of the organizers of the event, which she said took place for about an hour on Monday afternoon.

“I lead the National Art Honor Society at Warde High School,” she said. “So, I invited those members to join as well.”

Capron said community members and elected officials, such as Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz and state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, came to the event as well. She estimates about 100 people came throughout the event.

“We had an ongoing turnaround of people coming and leaving beautiful messages,” she said. “We wanted to do it the day before they came back to school because we were surprising the students.”

Given that a motto at McKinley Elementary is “We are Family,” Capron said much of the art revolved around family and love. She said people left quotes by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as drawings of the school mascot: a dolphin.

“There were a lot of students there who actually went to McKinley themselves when they were younger,” Capron said. “They wanted to make sure they were there to make a difference too. It was so lovely.”

At McKinley, Gingrave said, faculty have a lot of discussions with students about what it means to be a safe, respectful and thoughtful member of the school and Fairfield community. The messages of the art that volunteers put on the sidewalk, she said, fall in line with the school’s core values.

“It was just a really nice gesture that was positive and provided us with the impetus for a lot of good dialogues in the classroom,” Gingrave said. “Students had a chance in morning meetings to talk about the art that they saw and the messages they read. It put us in a good place as we started bringing both cohorts together.”

Gingrave said she was taken aback by all the people that came out to work on the project, adding the support was amazing.

“There may be negative things that happen, but there’s 100 other positive acts of kindness that constantly counteract it,” she said. “That’s a good place to be.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com