March 24, 2007
A study in compassion
By Sarah Horner
When Molly Willms started painting a portrait for an art
assignment at Denfeld High School a few months ago, she wanted to
make sure every brush stroke was absolutely perfect.
The pressure was on because this painting wasn’t
going to be hanging up on her bedroom wall or sitting in a display
case in the high school hallway. This painting was going to be shipped
overseas to an orphanage in Egypt where the young girl in the portrait
would be waiting for it.
“It felt like there was so much weighing
on this; this is something that might really mean something to a
child somewhere,” Molly said.
Molly, a sophomore, is one of a handful of students
at Denfeld High School participating in the Memory Project, an international
outreach program that connects high school students with orphans
Ben Schumaker of Madison started the project in
2004 after spending time at an orphanage in Guatemala. He felt overwhelmed
by the poverty around him and helpless because he wasn’t in
a financial situation to do much about it.
“Then a Guatemalan man who had grown up
in an orphanage stopped by and told me how much he wished he had
something to help him remember his earliest years,” Schumaker
said. “He didn’t have any photographs of himself as
a child or any parents to tell him what he was like. I’ve
always enjoyed making portraits of people, so the idea came naturally.”
Schumaker has since made it his mission to ensure
orphans from all over the world get a beautiful portrait of themselves
to treasure and carry with them as they get older. He enlists talented
high school students from the United States to do the paintings,
each on a canvas with oil paints. Then he brings them to children
living in orphanages in places such as Bolivia, China, Mozambique
and Senegal. The Memory Project has given portraits to children
living in orphanages in 30 countries.
“The orphanages understand this project
very well because they are so aware of how much their children value
personal belongings,” he said. “When the children grow
up, some walk out of the orphanages with literally nothing but the
clothes on their backs. To have a portrait of themselves gives them
one special belonging to take with them — a piece of personal
Joan Sargent, the intercultural effectiveness
coordinator at Denfeld, learned about the project when she met Schumaker
through a mutual friend in Wisconsin.
“He was telling me about it and I was like,
‘how cool is that?’ ” Sargent said. “It
was a chance to create an opportunity for kids in this school and
this community and connect them with kids from a different community
whose lives are real different.”
With the help of Denfeld art teacher Lee Englund,
Sargent picked a handful of the school’s top art students,
gave them each a digital photograph from a child in Egypt and put
them to work.
“I really didn’t have anyone hesitate,”
Englund said. “The students were really excited about it.”
One of the challenges for Molly was to get the
portrait to look like the 12-year-old girl in the picture and not
just an anonymous face with the ears, eyes, mouth and nose in the
“I think that I captured her pretty well,”
she said about her finished project. “Just looking at her
face for so long and recreating it with my own hands, I really started
to feel a connection. It’s amazing, now I feel like I know
her even though I’ve never met her. I feel like she is my
Katrina Lind, a junior, was putting the finishing
touches on her third portrait Thursday afternoon. She had planned
to do only one but when other students couldn’t finish theirs,
she offered to step in. She was working quickly because Sargent
needed to ship the portraits by Friday.
“I mean, it would have been so unfair if
you see all the other kids in the orphanage get a painting and you
don’t get one; I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen,”
Katrina said she thought about her subjects as
she painted them.
“I mostly think about what the orphanages
are like and how they are getting along and what they feel like
being orphans,” she said.
The students produced 13 portraits. Some showed
pictures of slightly smiling girls wearing butterfly barrettes;
others displayed stoic boys with black hair and dark eyes.
Hannah Monson, a senior, painted two portraits.
One of her subjects had gold earrings and slightly pulled-back hair.
All the students wrote messages on the backs of
the paintings. Hannah wrote an apology for making one of her subjects
“But I guess most adolescent girls want
to be older so maybe she’ll like it,” she said.
Along with the portraits, a group of freshman
English students wrote and illustrated children’s stories
called “Books of Hope.” “Books of Hope”
is an offshoot of the Memory Project but is catered towards orphans
living in Uganda and India. It also gives students who don’t
have art talents a way to participate, Sargent said.
“I just can’t believe the stuff these
students have come up with; so much creativity went into these,”
Schumaker will deliver the portraits and almost
80 books will be delivered after April 9.
"I stared at her picture for hours and hours
to paint it," said Kayla Petrich, a junior. "I will never
forget what she looks like or who she is."