Think Help-Portrait, but with painted portraits instead of digital ones. We loved hearing about what the folks at The Memory Project are doing for kids around the world and wanted to share it with the Help-Portrait Community.
The Memory Project creates keepsakes for children who don’t have so much as a family photo. The Memory Project recruits artists — mostly high school art students — to paint portraits of orphans from around the world. The portraits are then given to the children, in many cases becoming one of their few possessions.
Ben Schumaker started the Memory Project in 2004 as a social work grad student at the University of Wisconsin. It was featured on Katie Couric’s first CBS Evening News broadcast and quickly became a full time job. Since then more than 25,000 portraits have been painted and delivered to children in more than 30 countries.
What gave you the idea to start this project?
Ben Schumaker: I was volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala in 2003 when a man there pointed out that the kids didn’t have many personal keepsakes to contribute to their sense of self-identity. I had always enjoyed doing portraits in high school, so I thought it could be pretty powerful to get art students involved in making portraits for the kids. From that starting point, it was just a matter of taking one step at a time. Invite a few high schools to make portraits, invite an orphanage to receive portraits, get a few more high schools, another orphanage, and so on.
Why portraits? Can art change the world in a way some other form of aid can’t?
In this case I feel we are using art to add a personal touch that food and medicine can’t. Most of the kids who receive the portraits actually have most of their “basic needs” covered—they have a roof over the heads and are going to school. So for them the portraits are meant simply to make their childhoods a little more personal, a little more colorful. Something they can hang in their lockers. The portraits are meant to be special gifts in the same category as birthday presents, a day at the beach or other things they may remember fondly when looking back at their childhoods.
What kind of change in the life of a child does this effort make?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that getting a portrait changes a child’s life in the same way a heart transplant does, but I have met kids who genuinely seem to value their portraits more than any other items they might own. Some orphanages have told me that their kids started to prop the portraits on their pillows after making their beds. Another orphanage told me that whenever new visitors arrived the kids got their portraits out of their lockers and showed them off. So it’s that type of thing—not a heart transplant that keeps a child alive, but just something that’s made life a little bit more fun.
You run My Class Cares together with your wife to support other projects impacting students. Your work seems to pair American students with kids around the world—why the emphasis on one-on-one connections?
I think the one-on-one connection really makes the project more engaging to everyone involved. For the American art students, I think it’s powerful to know that their gifts are going to specific children rather than a group in general. Likewise, for the kids who receive the portraits, I think it’s meaningful to know that a particular portrait was custom made by one person who cared. Even if the portrait didn’t turn out to be a masterpiece, there’s a heartfelt effort behind it to count for something.
What can we do to support the Memory Project?
Anyone who enjoys creating art is welcome to create portraits for the project. It isn’t necessary to be an art student in a school.
For the non-artists among us, the best way to support the project is to call or e-mail art teachers at a local school to let them know about the project. And of course, like every nonprofit, financial donations are always welcome!
Visit the Memory Project’s website for more on creating portraits and supporting this project.
This interview by Kevin D. Hendricks was first published at HalogenTV.com. Used with permission.