Denfeld News

March 24, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

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 through art.

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 heritage.”

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 right places.

“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 little sister.”

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,” she said.

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 look older.

“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,” she said.

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."

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