Debbie Rubin, a colleague of mine, found an article on Ben Schumaker in her son's college alumni magazine. She thought it would make a great story and passed it along to me.
Schumaker has an idea called the "Memory Project," and it goes like this: Digital photos of orphans from around the world are sent to American high school art students. The students then paint or draw portraits of the kids based on the photos, and sent the portraits back to the kids. Sometimes the portraits are sent back with a note, an e-mail address or even some art supplies — in the hopes that a dialogue can be started.
The idea is twofold — to give the orphaned kids a bit of personal heritage, something tangible that they can keep, and to open the eyes of American kids.
The "Memory Project" has already given out a bunch of portraits, but Schumaker had never personally given out any of them.
I thought it would be cool to tag along with him when he did this for the first time. The portraits would mean a lot to the kids, but giving them out personally meant a lot to him.
Schumaker's "Memory Project" was headed to an orphanage in Nicaragua, and we got to tag along.
Cameraman Bob Caccamise, reporter Steve Hartman and I met up with Schumaker in Miami. We all hopped on the connecting flight to Managua, Nicaragua.
The next morning we took the ferry to Ometepe, an hourglass-shaped island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It's formed by two volcanoes: Conception and Maderas.
The orphanage had some people meet us once we got off the ferry in Ometepe. We lugged our equipment into the back of a pickup truck and off we went.
Riding around in the back of a pickup truck is one thing in this country. It's something else on Ometepe. The drivers on the "roads" are dodging and weaving their way around the horses, cows, and dogs that populate the way.
The orphanage houses and educates 200 to 300 kids. In Nicaragua, being an orphan doesn't necessarily mean that you have no parents. One or even both may be both alive but not in a position to take care of you.
Schumaker was carrying around a big suitcase weighing more than 60 pounds and filled with portraits.
A funny thing happened when he started to give out the portraits.
If given a portrait in a group setting, the recipients tended to be very embarrassed and clam up. They would often blush and hide their faces. Some ran away — I guess it can be a little overwhelming to receive something personal in front of your peers.
But some kids wanted their portrait then and there in front of everyone. Funny.
Others saw us trolling around the orphanage grounds and would approach us one on one — hoping that we had a portrait for them. We did, and were glad to give them out.
I felt like one of Santa's little helpers — with Schumaker playing Santa. Instead of a sack of toys, he lugged around a suitcase full of portraits.
I don't remember how many portraits we gave out over the three days. It seemed like hundreds.
It's hard for me to put into words what this experience meant to me. It was amazing to see the mix of reactions: smiling faces, blushing cheeks, wet eyes. I was just there watching — taking it all in.
Schumaker's project had two objectives: to give the Nicaraguan kids a bit of personal history — and to open the eyes of the American kids.
I didn't draw any portraits, but my eyes were opened, too.
To learn more about The Memory Project, click here. To find out more about the orphanage featured in the story, go to Friends Of The Orphans.