August 24: Ben Schumaker’s Talk about The Memory Project—Portraits of Kindness, he Founded, Likely Will Stay in Rotarians’ Memories for a Long Time

–submitted by Sharyn Alden

It’s hard to imagine how you might feel if someone you’ve never met drew a beautiful likeness of your face based only from a photo. It’s a special gift from a high school art student from across the world.

Art can be a connector of kindness throughout the world even during times of extraordinary stress. That’s one of the main takeaways from Ben Schumaker’s memorable program.

In 2003, as a graduate student at UW-Madison, Ben traveled to Guatemala as a volunteer to work in an orphanage. When he returned to Madison the seed of an excellent globally beneficial idea was formed.

Schumaker thought if young artists could draw a child in a disenfranchised country and give them a portrait of their face it could foster kindness, joy and hope throughout the world.

“It’s just that simple,” said Schumaker. “Many of the portrait recipients have never seen a photo of themselves much less have someone take the time to draw their portrait.”

The results of that simple idea are staggering. Since the Memory Project was born 18 years ago, it has connected 300,000 people in 56 countries. Even the State Department in Washington D.C. recognized the value of the project via a portrait presentation. 

The Project connects high school artists in the U.S. with youth living in challenging situations. High school art departments receive photos of young people in other countries that have been collected by the Memory Project. On the back of the portrait the art student draws one of their own hands. It’s another connector when the recipient puts their hand on top of the artist.

For 12 years the program focused on connecting with orphanages, but in 2017, it began including refugee camps.

Shumaker shared a personal story of getting to know a widow in Kabul, Afghanistan, with three children. “This is one of the hardest countries in the world to just be a girl,” Schumaker said. After the Taliban took control last August his heart sank knowing the two young girls in this family would not get be able to go to back to school.

The family asked if he could help them in their dangerous attempt to flee to Pakistan. “I told them I didn’t know what I could do but I’d try,” he said. He connected with a contact in Pakistan who helped them out but they arrived with no documents. Basically, they were stuck.

“But then, you won’t believe who got involved,” he said. A photo of the Malala Fund was shown on screen; the international, non-profit organization, co-founded by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

The family eventually reached Canada where Schumaker met up with them. “They all gave me a hug,” he said.  “Women in their faith and culture can only hug men who are family members. “Without question, this meant a lot to me,” he said.

If you missed last week’s Rotary meeting, you can watch the video here:

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