In an orphanage in Peru, giggling toddlers surround a Memory Project volunteer as she passes out small packets of papers wrapped in plastic. Hungrily, the kids tear apart the packaging, their faces brightening in amazement when they see what’s inside: their own portraits, painted by high schoolers thousands of miles away.
Their reactions are video recorded, and sent back the the high schoolers. Two drastically different groups of people, Peruvian orphans and American high school students, are united for a moment by the power of a paintbrush.
Started in 2004 by University of Wisconsin student Ben Shumaker, the Memory Project organization aims to make severely disadvantaged children from orphanages, refugee camps and schools feel valued by giving them a small piece of personal history in the form of a portrait.
“It makes the kids realize that they are important to people that they might not normally see,” art instructor Gillian Bailey said.
Art classes have participated in the project almost every year since it was introduced to the high school by previous art teacher Helen Brainerd, Bailey said.
“I usually have Art II and Art III do it,” Bailey said. “They us
ually know a little bit more about the materials.”
However, students not in those classes can also participate, Bailey said.
“Anybody can do it. You don’t have to do it through an art program,” Bailey said. “You can just go online and donate, and they’ll send you [a person to make a portrait of].”
The project, costing $15 a person, can be quite expensive for the art department. The Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee (PADC) and Promote Art in the Schools (PAINTS) help the department overcome that cost, Bailey said.
“Without the support of PAINT.S and PADC we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Bailey said.
The Memory Project is a profound experience for the high schoolers who participate, Bailey said.
“My students realize that just doing one small thing like making a portrait can really become such a moving, poignant part of somebody else’s life,” Bailey said.
The Memory Project uses artwork to address the emotional rather than the physical needs of impoverished youth. More personal than a monetary donation, the portraits are meant to give the youth the human connection that they often lack.
“Artwork is very personal, and when you make something, especially with the Memory Project, you start to feel a personal connection with the person you’re painting,” Art III student, junior Emma Ziegler said.
“It feels pretty special to be connected with somebody that you don’t really know,” said junior Dana Kumamoto, who painted a young girl from Bolivia. “It’s just remembering that [the portrait] could make them feel loved and wanted.”