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Art students contribute to kids’ memory banks

Project provides personal portraits for children worldwide

Snapshots with Santa. Birthday party pictures. School photos. Thanks to ultrasound, we can even take pictures of babies before they are born. Americans love to chronicle their children’s lives. But thousands of children around the world have no such keepsakes.

When Ben Schumaker was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, he traveled to Guatemala. There he met a man who’d grown up in an orphanage. He spoke sadly that he had no childhood photos or mementos. That chance encounter inspired Schumaker to launch the Memory Project in 2004.

According to its website, the Memory Project is a unique initiative in which art students create portraits (drawings, paintings, digital art, etc.) for children across the globe who have been orphaned, abandoned or neglected. Students in participating schools receive snapshots of children who are waiting for portraits. When the artwork is completed, the Memory Project ships the portraits to the children.

At St. George’s School in north Spokane, art teacher Judi Morgan enjoys having her students participate in the project. “It has taken the kids outside their own four walls. When I get the pictures of the orphans, the kids are immediately attracted to them,” she said. “They really take this project to heart. I’m immensely impressed with Ben and his whole organization and proud to be part of what he’s doing.”

Likewise, at Northwest Christian School, Kaye Linda Johnson has been involved with the program for several years. “It’s a really emotional project for me,” she said, blinking back tears. “These kids have nothing.”

This year her advanced art class received snapshots of children in a Ugandan orphanage. The result? Vibrant watercolor portraits of smiling brown faces adorn a bulletin board in a school hallway. The originals were already sent to the children, but Johnson makes copies for her students’ portfolios.

Kendra Vanden Berg, a senior, pointed to the portrait she’d painted. Vanden Berg said she was attracted to the look in the child’s eyes. “Her name is Anne,” she said.

Jessica Dahm chose to paint an older child. “Everyone else was doing little kids,” she said. “But he looks like he’s a teenager.”

The students spend many hours studying the faces, drawing pencil sketches and filling in backgrounds. “After spending so much time with their pictures you feel connected to them,” said Erika Rome.

Students expressed a feeling of responsibility to do their best work crafting keepsakes for these children who have so little. “There’s some pressure,” said Matt Comi. “The kids have no point of reference – you want to do a really good job.”

Recently, the art class received photographs of the children in Uganda receiving their portraits. The students agreed the best part of the project was seeing the beaming faces of the kids holding their portraits.

Since the project’s inception art students from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom have created more than 25,000 portraits. Each child in the program receives a couple of paintings from different student artists, providing them with a small collection of pictures – keepsakes that honor each child’s identity.

As Johnson looked at her students, she said, “I feel like we’re really privileged.” She pointed to the pictures. “You look at these kids and stare at them so long – you wonder about their lives.” Then she smiled at her class. “In our own little way we’ve made a difference.”