I met Ben Schumaker, and his wife Abha, several years ago when I was working in an orphanage in El Salvador. Ben and Abha were visiting in order to deliver portraits to the children, each one of which had been painted by an art student in the United States. As I heard Ben’s story and saw the reactions of the children as they received their precious gifts I was moved by the beautiful simplicity of Ben’s idea for the Memory Project. Here’s an extract from the article I wrote about their visit at the time:
One of the tragedies of an abandoned child is that they lose not only their hope for the future but also their sense of history. NPH works tirelessly to restore hope in our children and now, with the help of Ben Schumaker and his Memory Project, we are also securing their history.
In 2003, while visiting Guatemala, Ben heard a talk given by a young man who had grown up in an orphanage. The man spoke solemnly on the missing pieces of his childhood. He explained that, when you have so little growing up, you lack the precious keepsakes – photos, pictures, childhood toys – that secure your place in history and serve as tangible memories to carry with you always. Oftentimes orphans have no keepsakes and so, as their own memories inevitably fade, they often feel that their childhood does too. Inspired, Ben returned to the United States and founded the Memory Project. The project collects photos of orphaned, neglected and otherwise disadvantaged children around the world and sends them to high school and college art students across the USA who use them to create beautiful portraits.
The project is genius in two ways: firstly, it supplies precious keepsakes for children who would otherwise have no record of their childhood; and secondly, it encourages privileged children from the first world to really consider the reality of life in other countries. These students, after staring into the eyes of a distant orphan for weeks on end, often begin to consider what life must be like for that child. They frequently form strong emotional attachments to that child, which are made evident in the heart-felt personal messages they write on the backs of their paintings.
The Memory Project is beautiful because it lets children that feel forgotten know that they are loved. It also, not incidentally, puts a face to the sadness that exists in the world. It makes that sadness real, and the plight of real people cannot so easily be ignored.
Ben was just 21 when he was inspired to found the project. Once he returned home from Guatemala to Wisconsin he legally set up the Memory Project as a non-profit organisation in the States (I talked a bit in an earlier post about how to register a not-for-profit in various countries – read more here) and then created a website (which would have been a far more complex process then than it is today). From there it was a slow process of expanding – inviting a few schools to create portraits and an orphanage to receive them, adding more schools, more orphanages… today Ben, now 29, works full-time from home coordinating the project, which has 6,000 students participating each year. Ben says he continues to be inspired by the people involved and grateful to be able to work on the Memory Project: “It’s become much more of a lifestyle than a job, and I love it. If it ever comes to an end, I will be forever thankful for the years it lasted.”
On the practical side, Ben offers some sage advice:
1. Provide great customer service: “I try to give maximum attention to everyone involved. If someone contacts me about anything having to do with the project, I try to respond immediately. I’ve found it to be very important to make sure that everyone feels valued, no matter how small or large their contributions.”
2. Keep it simple: “Do one thing and do it well.”
3. Get entrepreneurial: “A social entrepreneurship model will work better for you in the long run than a charity model, which relies purely on fundraising to cover all the expenses. In the case of the Memory Project, all of the art students who create portraits are also required to pitch in small participation fees. Then we never have to worry about how to get funding.”
4. Prepare for paperwork: “If your project really takes off you’ll probably find yourself as the head administrator, which means that you might find yourself doing more “office work” than spending time face-to-face with people. If that’s not your wish, then adjust your plans accordingly or find ways to keep your passion alive while you’re buried in email and paperwork.”
Ben says his biggest challenge now is taking it to the next level: “I would really like to get the number of students participating up to 10,000 or even 12,000.” If you would like to participate in the Memory Project please contact Ben here.