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Students Paint Memories For Orphans, Peace For Children In War Zones

UW graduate student Ben Schumaker displays one of several portraits he's created for ophans living in Third World countries. Now, he's connecting teachers with orphanages in Africa and Central America so their students can do the same.

By Molly Thompson

Student art work has always been a cheery way to brighten up the refrigerator door, but now it's illuminating the eyes of orphaned children in remote corners of the world via the Memory Project.

The Madison-based non-profit organization connects American teachers with orphanages and worldwide humanitarian efforts so that students can create either portraits for orphans or story books for children in war-torn regions.

Sierra Leone is one of several African countries with thousands of orphans who could benefit from the Memory Project. Many have little or no belongings - much less any pictures or momentos of their childhood.

University of Wisconsin graduate student Ben Schumaker started the project last year, and already hundreds of students in Wisconsin and across the country have participated.

"Students are going to create art and write in their classes anyway - and this way their projects go beyond the classroom to help people," said Schumaker, a graduate of Marshfield High School. "It's like killing two birds with one stone. The projects could end up in the back of a closet, but instead they are cherished by children growing up in conditions worse than many of us in the United States can even imagine."

The Memory Project is a growing method of "service learning," which combines curriculum with helping others and personal reflection. Students learn while improving their community - and in this case, the world.

This year the book program is focused on northern Uganda, which is in the midst of what's being called "Africa's forgotten war." Children are routinely abducted, beaten, starved and forced to serve as soldiers and sex slaves as a terrorist group, the Lord's Resistance Army, fights the Ugandan government for power. Each night, thousands of village children enter the cities to sleep on the streets and avoid crossfire.

"Most of us have memories of books being read to us before we fell asleep in our warm beds," Schumaker said. "Children in Uganda may not have warm beds, but books with beautiful artwork and calming text can help them find momentary peace of mind."

The brutal war has also made schools and education hard to come by and books written in English, which is the national language in Uganda, help the children learn to read.

The Children's Book program is open to students at all levels; the Memory Portrait program is for high-level high school art students. Students receive a picture of an orphan and then create a portrait – not only recreating the image, but capturing the character of the child.

"It's such a challenge," Schumaker said. "That's why we ask for highly skilled students to participate. The portrait is often one of the child's only belongings - and may be the only thing they will ever have to remember their childhood."

That's what sparked Schumaker's conception of the Memory Project. He was volunteering at a Guatemalan orphanage when a young man stopped by to visit and recount his own experience growing up in an orphanage.

"He didn't have any pictures from his earliest years or any parents to share memories," Schumaker said. "And he felt that much of his childhood had been forgotten. When we create these portraits, it's our hope that they will provide the children with a permanent reminder of their immeasurable importance in the world."

Whitefish Bay High School art teacher Kileigh Hannah had 19 students paint portraits for orphans in Honduras and Bolivia.

Kileigh Hannah's art students at Whitefish Bay High School spent about three weeks completing oil portraits of orphans in Honduras and Bolivia. The portraits are drying now until a volunteer can courier them to the orphanages in late December or January.

"I was surprised at how receptive the students were, but it was more than that - they wanted to make the portraits perfect because they knew how much it would mean," Hannah said.

She also gave the students an option of writing a note to send with their picture.

"Some students take Spanish - what they speak in Honduras and Bolivia – and wanted the opportunity to practice their language skills," said Hannah, who is in her third year of teaching at Whitefish Bay.

Having real people as their subject matter made it a more meaningful experience because it took the spotlight off grades.

"This district is very grade-focused, and apprehension over grades can, at times, hinder creative energy," Hannah said. "To students, the most important thing about the Memory Portraits isn't the grade – it's creating something special for a child who may not have much."

It also fit into existing curriculum perfectly, Hannah said.

“For portrait drawing, students usually have to do a self-portrait,” which is difficult because they can be self-conscious, she said. “Instead of focusing on technique, they would be concerned with their nose, which they don’t like, or their hair, which they don’t like. This was a totally different experience because it took the focus off them. Students learned and also felt they had a purpose.”

Schumaker plans to expand The Memory Project next year beyond its 30 orphanages in nearly 24 countries and needs more artists. To participate, contact him via

You can learn more about service learning at the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse Web site.

Posted December 21, 2005