- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Since it was founded in a one-room Madison sublet in 2004, the Memory Project has recruited tens of thousands of teenage artists - on six continents - to create more than 100,000 personalized portraits of children living in orphanages, refugee camps and other difficult circumstances around the world.

But as impressive as those numbers are, they still do not prepare one for the sight of the tenderly beautiful children’s faces rendered as paintings, drawings or sketches, and stacked on Ellen and Steve Broeckert’s dining room table, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/2p2bzYR ) reported.

About once a month this time of year, the Broeckerts’ Middleton dining room becomes headquarters for sorting hundreds of Memory Project portraits being sent overseas to the children who inspired them. The Broeckerts are the retired aunt and uncle of Memory Project founder Ben Schumaker, whose nonprofit gets plenty of volunteer support from family: Another aunt and uncle also help, and Schumakers’ parents, Jim and Debbie, often log the miles as couriers, hand-carrying the precious finished portraits in special duffle bags to points around the world.

In February, they and Schumaker’s Aunt Ellen carried portraits of 800 Syrian children from Middleton to a refugee camp in Jordan where those children live. In early April, Schumaker’s parents also went to Ukraine, along with Ukraine native Tamara Tsurkan of Madison, to deliver portraits there.

Last week two other Memory Project travelers took 3,200 portraits (a set of four for each child) to 800 children in Bolivia, including 34 done by art students at Middleton High School and another 13 by students at Madison’s Toki Middle School. Portraits by Toki students already have made their way this year to Ukraine and Colombia.

More than a decade after it was featured on the CBS Evening News, the Memory Project - which recruits talented young artists to turn photos of children in some of the world’s poorest countries into keepsake portraits for them - has only grown in scope. In May it is partnering with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to connect with 1,000 more Syrian children in the refugee camp in Jordan. It is also talking with UNICEF about doing a similar project in Haiti.

“We’re trying every year to represent kids from all continents, trying to respond to timely concerns,” Schumaker said.

But “I would say that in a dozen years of doing this, the delivery to the (Syrian) refugee camp was probably the most connected I felt to any particular project - just because so much of the news right now is so negative about refugees in particular, and people from the Middle East in general,” he said.

“For us to be able to bring this really positive story to these kids and really respond to them with friendship rather than fear I thought was just terrific.”

Schumaker, who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in social work at UW-Madison, founded the Memory Project in graduate school after a trip to help in an orphanage in Guatemala. There, he met a man who’d grown up in the same orphanage.

“He looked at me taking pictures with my camera of the kids, and said, ‘When you go home you should develop those pictures and send the photos back to the kids,’” said Schumaker, now 35. The man himself had no photos of himself as a child, no visual record of his childhood.

“The project started very much with that focus on orphanages, with the idea that many kids in those situations don’t have photos,” Schumaker said. “Now, a decade later, things are different.

“Smartphones are everywhere. You can take a picture of a kid in rural Africa and show it to them on a screen and they’ll do this,” he said, demonstrating how a child knows how to manipulate a picture on a phone.

“Even kids in really difficult situations are used to seeing themselves on screens. But I think it’s neat that this project still persists by being about art, and a handmade gift. And kids these days may be even less likely to have printed photos, because everything is digital.”

Images in the Memory Project go both ways: When an art student finishes a portrait for a child abroad, the student can attach his or her own photo to the back and write a very basic bio. (Only first names and countries are given; The Memory Project works to safeguard the privacy of the youths on both sides, and has no social media presence to prevent sharing of photos or other information.)

“This project is about one person in one country making a handmade gift that is going to a child that they’ve never met,” he said. “I think when the kids receive these gifts, they are just as interested in turning it around, looking at the back and wanting to know about the art student (who made it) - just being amazed that ‘This person spent hours making this for me - and they don’t even know me?’ I think that’s the heart at the center of the project.”

When Memory Project couriers hand out the portraits, “The smiles and laughter of the children are so great to see,” Miraj Pradhan, head of communications for UNICEF Jordan, wrote in an email.

“It’s really a joyful time,” agreed Ellen Broeckert.

“The girls and boys would just laugh and giggle in anticipation of what they were going to get. And when the portraits were given out, it is just like you would imagine any U.S. kids: They were excited, a little embarrassed, a little shy,” she said. “And the laughter, the smiles - to me, took away everything else in their lives they were contending with for that moment.”

An exhibit with copies of the portraits sent to Syria soon will travel to children’s museums around the U.S. “to help humanize Syrian children and inspire feelings of shared humanity and international friendship,” Schumaker said.

The Memory Project is self-sustaining through a $15 fee paid by each art student who participates. Often schools, PTOs or even art teachers themselves pick up the cost.

The fee covers administrative costs, shipping materials, airfares for travelers taking the portraits, and a donation of around $5,000 unique to each program. In the Syrian refugee camp, $5,000 went toward purchasing art supplies for children there. In Ukraine, $6,000 went to an art therapy program designed to help children who had experienced wartime conditions.

The program does no advertising beyond a simple postcard sent each year to high school art teachers (10,000 last fall).

“As long as there are art students here interested in doing this - we’re essentially all sharing in the cost,” said Schumaker, who is the Memory Project’s only full-time employee.

Being part of the Memory Project “is a really cool experience,” said Elora Becker, a Middleton 10th grader who painted a portrait of a 10-year-old boy in Bolivia named Eusebia.

“For me I feel I’m making a difference in someone’s life. Even if it’s a small difference, you’re still impacting their life,” she said. “It feels like a powerful thing.”

Lauren Robertson, a Middleton senior, picked a photo of a Bolivian boy named Cristian from the pile of images placed face-down in her classroom by her art teacher, Peter Ludt. She made Cristian’s likeness come alive with chalk, watercolor and pen, and added his name vertically on the side.

“It’s cool to realize there are so many different people out there, and so many different looks, and so many different backgrounds,” Robertson said. “Mr. Ludt could have said, ‘We’re going to take a picture of a famous person off the Internet’ (to do a portrait), and it has no meaning, but with these kids it has meaning. It’s meaningful to us, and it’s meaningful to them. I think that’s very important.”

Schumaker said he came up with the idea of using high school students for the Memory Project because, as a student himself, he enjoyed making portraits in art class. Too often, he said, wonderful student artwork ends up stored in someone’s closet - instead of out in the world, where it can make a difference.

Since launching the Memory Project, Schumaker has become a father himself (his wife, Abha Thakkar, is executive director of Madison’s Northside Planning Council). He now works from a small home office in Middleton, where portraits - 20,000 this year - are shipped in from schools as far away as Australia and South Korea, England, Canada and across the U.S.

Someday he’d like to expand the Memory Project to provide portraits for low-income children in U.S. schools, he said.

“The project hasn’t lost any of its magic for me,” he said. “I’m just as excited about it if not more” than a decade ago.

“So much the unspoken purpose of the project is really just trying to build peace by bringing people face to face in a special way,” he said. “That’s really the ultimate goal.”


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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