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The Memory Makers

Featured Photo from The Memory Makers

Lake Mary High School art students capture the enduring spirit of young hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

Karen LeBlanc, chair of Lake Mary High School’s fine arts department, teaches the daunting skill of portraiture to students in her 2-D drawing classes. Her lessons, taught over a period of three years, begin with basic facial features, then charcoal self-portraits, and, finally, a full-figure study.

For the past two years now, Karen has asked her AP-level art students if they want to further challenge those portraiture skills by participating with the Memory Project, a nonprofit organization that matches children in other countries who have faced profound challenges – including violence, war, poverty, and the loss of their parents – to artists and art students in the United States.

The Memory Project asks the artists to draw portraits of the children based on photographs they provide. The resulting artwork is given to the children, who sometimes have very few possessions or pictures of themselves. The organization’s goal is both to show the children who receive the portraits that they are valued and loved and to give them a special childhood memory they can cherish. Since it began in 2004, the Memory Project has provided more than 130,000 portraits for children in 47 different countries.

After first trying the project with a small group of students last year, Karen asked her current AP Art 2-D students if they would like to participate. Fifteen students chose to take part this year, and after viewing a video about children in different countries and taking a vote, Karen’s students decided to draw portraits of children in Puerto Rico who were affected by the devastating damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.

Each student was matched with a child in Puerto Rico, and the artists received basic info about their subject (name, age, favorite color, etc.) along with a photograph or two. The LMHS students were encouraged to choose whichever portrait medium they preferred – acrylic, mixed media, pen and ink, watercolor, colored pencil – but to avoid pastels, which could smear in the shipping process. Some of the artists chose to change the backgrounds in their portraits or to draw the children in their favorite colors to make the artwork more personal.

Karen says her art students were often critical of their own work during the process, but she reminded them that, to the children who would receive the portraits, they would be worthy of the greatest of art galleries.

“What I like about this project is that these kids are blessing someone else in another country who they’ll never meet, but will now have something forever of themselves at that age,” Karen says. “It’s just so neat.”

Karen took photos of her own students while they worked, as well as a picture of each of her students holding the portrait they made, and she included those pics in the package she sent to the Memory Project. The students also sent the Puerto Rican children their own names, ages, and favorite colors in return, so the children would feel like they knew something about the artists who made their pictures.

Within a month, Memory Project organizers emailed Karen a video of the children in Puerto Rico receiving their portraits.
“The Memory Project is one of the best experiences an artist can go through,” says Lake Mary High junior Sophia Wittig. “This was my second time participating, and both times, I felt a sense of purpose and fulfillment that is unparalleled.”

This year’s project was especially meaningful to Sophia because she traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and saw not only the damage, but also the vibrant culture of the lively and resilient island.

Dr. Mickey Reynolds, Lake Mary High’s principal, was so impressed and touched with the results of this endeavor, she made a point of sending the video from the Memory Project to the entire faculty and staff.

“As educators, we have a responsibility to teach more than course standards,” Dr. Reynolds says. “We must teach our students how to be good people – how to be productive and mindful citizens of the world. The Memory Project moved me because it represented a lesson in empathy.”

Dr. Reynolds believes the Memory Project motivated her students to consider what it is like to be a young person in Puerto Rico and what it means to be a child who had experienced – and was possibly still experiencing – untold hardships and considerable loss.

“When I watched the video of the Puerto Rican school children receiving their portraits, I got misty-eyed seeing their happiness,” she says.

“I would recommend this project to anyone who is willing and able to do it, because it truly does make an impact on the children’s lives,” adds Sophia. “And if they smile only once because of it, it would be worth it.”

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