While visiting an orphanage in Guatemala two years ago, American college student Ben Schumaker met a young man who described firsthand what it was like to grow up without parents. His youth had been forgotten, the man said; he didn't even have a photo of himself as a boy.
Schumaker was moved by what he saw and heard: "Poverty was rampant, nutrition was poor, and not having soap left many of the kids with skin diseases. I wanted to help. But all of those problems take money to fix, and I was just a student."
Back home in Wisconsin, Schumaker had an idea. Since many kids leave the orphanages with just the clothes on their backs, he decided to give them a lasting memory of their childhoods. He created the Memory Project, in which orphans in developing countries are given portraits of themselves done by American high school and college art students. The students work from snapshots of the orphans taken by volunteers.
In the project's first year, 3,000 portraits were completed. More than twice that number are currently being worked on. For some orphans, it's the first image of themselves they have seen. For most, it's one of their few possessions. The kids are encouraged to send a drawing or note to the artist. "Thank you for taking the time to make this marvelous painting so pretty that I like so much," Katherine, a 16-year-old in Nicaragua, wrote Erin Marceno, a 17-year-old high school senior in Connecticut.
The student artists say they get something from their effort as well.
Schumaker, 24, has expanded the Memory Project to include books and wants to offer art classes at the orphanages.
More than 30,000 U.S. students have participated in the Memory Project.
The Memory Portraits are done by older students, but kids at any grade level can participate in a companion program called Books of Hope. Students in this program make books for English-speaking children in India and Uganda.
If your class would like to participate, have your teacher visit www.thememoryproject.org.