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Student artists create a special gift

A project dreamed up by a Wisconsin man found its way to an art class at Depew High School, giving students an opportunity for a lesson in global sharing.

Students in Jennifer Hatfield's advanced drawing and painting class created a special gift for children living in an orphanage in Ecuador -- each of their portraits done in acrylic paints.

They worked from photographs of the children provided through the Madison, Wis.-based Memory Project, founded in 2004 by Ben Schumaker.

As a social work volunteer at an orphanage in Guatemala in 2003, he came up with the idea of providing a special keepsake for young children and teenagers around the world who have few or no personal items as a record of their lives.

The idea was sparked by a conversation he had with a man who had grown up in an orphanage and told him that he had no sense of personal identity from his childhood because he'd grown up without parents.

An amateur artist, Schumaker decided to reach out to art teachers across the U.S. with a project for their students to create portraits of these disadvantaged children as a way of honoring their heritage and identity and boosting their self-image as they see themselves as a work of art.

Eight years after its founding, the nonprofit Memory Project gathers about 5,000 portraits annually from schools in the U.S., Great Britain and Canada that are distributed to children in about 33 countries. Details on the program, featured in a number of newspaper and magazine articles and television shows, can be found at

The program, nicknamed "a portrait in kindness," also aims to inspire in the art students an interest in global issues. They also may receive letters from the children whose portraits they drew or view a video of delivery of the portraits.

Junior Lauren Betzig, one of the Depew art students who also wrote essays about their experience, said: "Life is not measured by how much money you make, how long you live or how lavishly, but instead by how many lives you touch in your time on Earth This is the first time realizing that I could do something special with my talents that would help other people and make them happy."

Planning to continue the portrait project with other art classes, Hatfield said, "It is a wonderful feeling to know that your gift of time and talent will be treasured by a friend a world away for years to come."