Faded pictures in a yearbook, an old family photo, a tattered teddy bear high up on a closet shelf: These are the possessions that evoke childhood memories of family and friends—the roots from which a life sprung into existence. We often ponder these memories when we think about who we are and how far we have come. But what if these things never were? For millions of orphans living in developing nations around the world, fading memories serve as the only link to their impoverished upbringing. They often leave the orphanage and go into the world without one photo or keepsake from their childhood.
In 2003, while volunteering at a Guatemalan orphanage, graduate student Ben Schumaker met a man who had grown up in an orphanage himself. He told Ben that he had not one photo, not one trinket—nothing from his childhood to remember it by. The man then suggested that Ben help the children in the orphanage where he volunteered by giving them something that would help contribute to their sense of identity—something they could look at years later to remember a time in their childhood. This conversation inspired Ben to organize The Memory Project.
It started as a low-budget endeavor run out of a bedroom in his parents’ home in Madison, Wisconsin. Ben would invite a few high schools to ask their students to paint portraits from photographs of orphans, and he would ask a few orphanages to receive the portraits. It was Ben’s hope that receiving the portraits would be special for the children—an event they would remember fondly in the future when they looked upon the paintings.
Today, The Memory Project collaborates with art students in the US, UK, and Canada to bring individual hand-painted portraits to thousands of disadvantaged children the world over.
After CBS Evening News aired a story on The Memory project in 2006, hundreds of requests from art teachers who wanted to participate in the program started rolling in from all over the country. Since the program’s inception in 2004, more than 30,000 portraits have been painted and delivered to children in 33 countries. But participation isn’t limited to art students.
“There are actually many individual artists involved in the project…people who sign up to make one, two, three, or more portraits on their own or as part of a group they organized for the cause,” Ben said in an email to Walter Foster.
Each participant is supplied with a photograph of a disadvantage child to use as a reference for a portrait that they will paint. Children who take part in The Memory Project receive several portraits made by different artists. This helps to provide them with a sense of identity and it gives them something that is uniquely theirs.
But the orphans aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience—the art students gain a greater sense of social awareness from connecting to the impoverished children on such a personal level. Many art teaches whose students participate in the program have testified to the profound impact it has had on their classrooms.
While many orphans in Nicaragua, Uganda, El Salvador, and other parts of the world don’t have doting parents snapping photographs at birthday parties and graduations, thanks to Ben, they do have an original painting of their likeness. A painting that they can look at for years, fondly remembering the day in their childhood when they received their very own portrait.
For more information on The Memory Project and to learn how you can help, visit thememoryproject.org. Note: The information contained in this blog was taken directly from The Memory Project Website and an interview with Ben Schumaker at help-portrait.com.