As the holidays draw near, many people are thinking about ways to help the less fortunate, whether it be by donating money to charity or giving food to the needy. This year, teenagers at Lewiston-Porter and Amherst high schools are using their talents to reach out to orphaned children halfway around the world.
Art students at both schools are participating in The Memory Project, an organization which has high school art students create portraits for orphans living in Third World countries. Ben Schumaker founded the project in the fall of 2004, after spending a month at a Guatemalan orphanage. After seeing the extreme poverty, the then-22-year-old Schumaker wished he could do something more. "I wanted to help," he says on the Project's Web site, "but all of those problems take money to fix, and I was just a student." Meeting a Guatemalan man who had grown up in an orphanage and therefore had no keepsakes from childhood inspired Schumaker to start the Project. "I'd always enjoyed making portraits of people," he says, "so the idea came naturally."
Upon returning to the U.S., he contacted art teachers in his home state of Wisconsin to see if they were interested in helping out. The project has since grown and now involves schools throughout the country.
After she saw the Project profiled on the "The Nightly News with Katie Couric," Lew-Port junior Lindsay Van Harssel, 16, brought it to the attention of her art teacher, Cynthia Sanchez. The school signed up to create 100 portraits, and about 85 students in Drawing and Painting, AP Drawing and Painting, AP Two-Dimensional Design, Photography, and Printmaking classes participated. Working from photographs of the children, the students used a variety of mediums, including oils, pastels, charcoal, and a photo process.
"We just want them to feel more important or to have something to hold onto," says Van Harssel.
Young artists involved in the project say they become very much attached to the children they are painting after looking into their faces for long periods of time. "One of my girls' is older and her eyes are really deep and in her picture she's kind of serious, so it's neat to be able to transfer that to a portrait and capture that," says Lauren Schmidt, 17, a senior.
"When you look into the children's eyes you just see innocence," agrees Taylor Ruckh, 17, a senior, "and it's just really moving and you feel honored to be painting for them."
On the Project's Web site, Schumaker recounts the story of a student who was so touched by her child that her family wanted to adopt the little girl, although the adoption was not possible because of the laws of the child's country.
While not all participants take such drastic steps, it is clear that students are affected by the experience. "It just showed us that art can really touch people and it can affect people from around the world without seeing them or ever meeting them," says Lauren.
"Before, art, to me, was something I could express myself through," says Lindsey Brown, 17, a senior. "But now I realize that I can use art to help other people feel better about themselves too."
"I really want them to realize that this is more than just a classroom project -- they need to start being active citizens in this world," says Sanchez. "There are people that are so real and have such permanent, pressing issues that we almost ignore, and we've learned to ignore it. I don't know if it's something that will change them everyday, but at least you can open their eyes to that one child or that group of children or from an exhibition. I always say that I myself can't do a whole lot for the entire world, but as a teacher you have a force of 100 or a force of 150 or, you know, 1,000, that you can gather at a school district and really make a big difference."
Lew-Port plans to hold an exhibition to show off the portraits in early January before they are sent to an orphanage in Honduras.
At Amherst, students feel a similar passion about creating art for these children who live so far away -- in this case at an orphanage in Uganda.
"It's a project that's more than just the visual satisfaction," says Liz Szeluga, 17, a senior. "It's more emotional, there's more feeling in it, it means more to the child because they've never had a picture of themselves before."
Art teacher Catherine Brown started the project at Amherst after she saw a CBS evening news segment about it and contacted Schumaker.
There are 11 students working on the project at Amherst: Jake Buscaglia, Claire Lines, Jared Reisweber, Tereza Bajusova, Victoria Mariani, Napoleon Kerber, Stephanie Lines, Elizabeth Szeluga, Fei Fei Zhang, Sara Sitch, and Conor Ketchum.
Tereza, 17, thinks about the people behind the faces in the portraits: "You see who they are. You see their emotions and their 'pain' -- what they've gone through and are still going through, and you can't even imagine -- you don't know what they've seen, you just have no idea..." The kids in these portraits live in war-torn Uganda, a country where children walk for miles to just reach safe places to sleep each night, so they won't be kidnapped and forced into the army.
Napoleon, 16, says, "It makes me think of a lot, not just in the painting, but actually think about the girl that I'm [drawing] and the life that she's living ...I think it 'll mean a lot to her because I don't think she's ever had a portrait of herself...She'll [someday] be able to show her kids -- and be able to say somebody cared about me and somebody was able to do this for me."
To learn more about the Memory Project visit www.thememoryproject.org.
Rachel Dobiesz is a junior at Hamburg High School. Lizzy Johnson is a sophomore at Amherst Central High School.