When Abington Heights High School senior Irene Torresani first saw the picture of the young child whose portrait she was to paint, she was immediately moved.
"I want to capture their eyes more than anything because that is what makes it look like them and what makes it personal and more than just a drawing," she said. "You think of what their life is like when you're doing it. It is a nice connection we get to have with them, even though we are so far away and on the opposite side of the world."
Torresani, along with other students in Eileen Healey and Abby Fenton's art classes, volunteered to participate in the Memory Project, which gives art students the chance to paint portraits of orphaned children. Although seemingly a small gesture, the portraits are often the only possessions the children have. The Abington Heights portraits were recently sent to Ghana, where they will be hand-delivered to the children over the coming weeks.
Wisconsin resident Ben Schumaker founded the Memory Project in 2004 following a trip to volunteer in an orphanage in Guatemala the previous year. While there, Schumaker realized that the children had few belongings representing their childhood. That experience sparked his own memories of high school art classes and ignited the flame that would become the Memory Project which, to date, has created more than 50,000 portraits for children in 34 countries.
Schumaker recalled the first time he visited an orphanage to hand-deliver portraits.
"Since I had never delivered portraits before, I had no idea how the kids were going to react to them," he said. "When I handed them out, it was totally chaotic - kids darting around and shouting, jumping to look over each other's shoulders to see all the different portraits. But after things settled down, one of the girls came in and told me to come check out their dormitory. I walked in, and all the girls had made their beds and propped their portraits on their pillows. That touched me deeply."
Eileen Healey explained that after the portraits have been delivered, the school usually receives an email with photos of the children holding them for the artists to see. The excitement often comes across in the emails; one year, the school even received a video of the children performing a "thank you" dance.
"It is more excitement the day the paintings are coming than when they are having food or clothing donations; it is like Christmas," she said. "They love them; it is something they can keep. They have so few personal possessions of their own. We do them on flexible canvas instead of a hard canvas because all they have is a cubbyhole. They are able to roll it up and put it there."
Courtney McCreary, a senior, explained that participating in the Memory Project is more difficult than a typical classroom assignment because of its inherent value.
"It is harder because we're not working on it for a grade, we are doing it to please someone, so we want it to be as good as it can be," she said. "Even though we never see the picture again, we get to know that we made someone happy."
Junior Maria Sunick agreed with her classmate.
"They aren't exposed to the same opportunities we have, so we would take something like this for granted," she said. "I get worried because I want it to look as much like them as it can. If I make a mistake, I want to fix it. When they see it, I want them to be happy with what they see."
Although the creative part of the Memory Project is now completed, Irene Torresani plans on applying the lessons she learned from it to her post-Abington Heights life.
"This project makes me feel so good about myself," she said. "I feel that I could learn so much more just by going there for even a few months and spending my time with them. It makes me realize how lucky I am to have what I have. This has taught me to be more grateful for my life."
Abington Heights art students paint portraits for orphaned children