Art for Hearts' Sake

Monday, December 11, 2006

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. It was as if he had no childhood, 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.

Aryn Cordner, 18 and also from Connecticut, received this message from 9-year-old Jose David: "Thank you for the picture, Aryn. It is very nice. I hope you can come to Nicaragua soon. I am very happy for the picture. I look just like myself."

The student artists say they get something from their effort as well.

"This project is changing how I look at my life," said Lakeland, Florida's Mikayla Sanford, 16. "I cannot even begin to comprehend what these children's lives are like." Mikayla hopes the portraits will help the orphans know that people care about them.

Zoe Hilpl, 15, is drawing a portrait of a 7-year-old Honduran named Cesar. "His face just makes me smile," the New York teen said, "because he is happy with what he does have, and he can smile about it."

Schumaker, 24, has expanded the Memory Project to include books and wants to offer art classes at the orphanages. His goal is to have the orphans do portraits of the U.S. kids who do portraits of them.

That, he thinks, would be a powerful exchange.

-- Catherine Handren

© 2006 The Washington Post Company